Shy Babies and Words of Encouragement

Alas, my darling little granddaughter is a very timid one-year-old. She’s cuter than cute and I just want to eat her up. I want to snuggle my nose in her clean little neck. I want to walk around holding her on my hip, pointing out interesting things. I want her to sit on my lap and play patty cake. I want to tickle and be engulfed in her giggles. Instead, I admire her from afar, inching a wee bit closer as the visit continues. If separated from Mom or Dad, instant worried eyebrows appear then she moves into an all-out terrified cry.

Granted, I don’t see her often enough for me to be the familiar Noni. And I don’t secretly suspect it’s anything my son and daughter-in-law are doing to encourage this shyness. That’s just how our baby came into the world. It’s also a normal developmental stage. We’re going to introduce Skype into the routine. Maybe that will help.

My youngest child was a bit shy. Aloof is actually a better word. She just didn’t care about her adult relatives or her peers all that much. She stuck by me, and that was good enough. I remember taking her to preschool and the kids would run up dancing around her, claiming, “I want to sit by Marcy!”  I was disturbed when she would just walk away nonplussed. Being a “pleaser” from the get-go, I wanted to say, “Darling, be nice to the little kids or they won’t like you. Can’t you just pander a little for Mommy?”

The best tool is patience. It’s hard not to take the rejection personally, but you really have to put your adult hat on for a shy child. Something I have to remind myself to do when the neighbor’s kid is friendlier than my only grandchild. It’s not about me.

“Curing” shyness is not an option because it’s not a fault; it’s simply a personality trait. Many kids outgrow it as they get more socialized.  Warning others that “she’s shy” is a mistake. Never give the shy label in front of the timid child. Any sort of negative labeling will only produce more of the same. Sentences like, “She’s a deep thinker” and “We can try again later” said with a confidant smile are much more useful.

Be careful about labeling your kids. Each little one comes into this world a different person with lots of traits. Encouraging the positive ones can stimulate more of the same. “My little artist” is a perfectly fine way to talk about your creative one. But don’t stick to just one. Branch out. Find several and interchange them. “He’s my helper.” “She’s a fantastic big sister.”  You can put both kids in the same boat if it fits: “My kids are very athletic.” Even the smallest of good behaviors deserves notice. I have even been known to “brag” about my kids on the phone when I know they will overhear me. “You should have seen what Richie did today. He helped his brother find his shoes. He’s very helpful and I really appreciate it.”

Another way to encourage some of their positive traits is the “I Notice” technique. Praising your kids with hyperbole is actually ineffective. If everything they do is fantastic, you have watered down your true chances for them to believe you, and in themselves. Grandiose overreacting begins when our babies take their first step. The excitement is unbearable and the applause comes quickly. We continue do this for every little milestone. Overjoyed clapping when they feed themselves or use the toilet is okay at first, even helpful. The time to stop this overt worship is when they are around three years of age. That’s when some powerful verbal responses can sink in. “I notice how well you are playing with your sister” will make them notice it, too. Or at bedtime, “I noticed you didn’t cry when I told you ‘no more candy’. That shows me you are growing up.” You can move into even more observations like, “It was really helpful today when you got dressed without me having to remind you. Thank you.” All of these statements have a much stronger internal impact on your child than out-and-out praise.

Your words about shyness have a lasting effect as well. Some parents make the mistake of saying, “Don’t be shy. She won’t bite you.” Or “Maybe you won’t feel shy today.” Or “Try not to act shy.” Those simply discourage the child. The “I Notice” technique has a much stronger effect. “I noticed you started playing with the other kids sooner. You must be feeling more confident.” It goes without saying to be sure the statement is actually true before saying it. Even if it’s just a baby step you noticed, pick up on it and gently point out the progress. They will build on your observation.

Your words are mighty powerful tools. Use them wisely. Read more about ways to encourage your child in the Positive Discipline series by Jane Nelsen.



About Marilyn Kentz

Marilyn Kentz was trained in Positive Discipline under Lynn Lott, a licensed family therapist who holds two master’s degrees in counseling and psychology and has written several of the Positive Discipline book series. This is an eye-opening, tried-and-true version of disciplining children with specific techniques that really work.

Back in the 90s, just as she was about to get her MFCC degree, Marilyn accidentally got a television sitcom on NBC called “The Mommies”. Marilyn and her comedy partner went on to do a Showtime special and an ABC talk show. Though her higher education was interrupted, she continued teaching Positive Discipline to “thirsty” parents. She has co-authored five books, and for the past eight years she’s been facilitating parenting classes and seeing private clients. A mother of four grown kids, she knows what she’s blogging about!


  1. Thank you for your article on shyness. I especially like the “I noticed” technique. I teach an after school Bible club & I can use the “I noticed” for the shy children, but also for the children who need everybody’s attention.

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