Too Shy, Shy

When did it become acceptable for a kid to ignore a direct question or greeting? To not respond when spoken to? I’m fairly sure it hasn’t always been like this. So, what’s changed and why?

I don’t mean ignoring some guy in a trench coat who approaches at a playground. I mean ignoring someone who says “Hello!” to a kid whose mother is standing right next to her. In front of the elementary school, at the grocery store, at the kitchen door.

If the parent offers any excuse, it’s typically “She’s shy.” But more often than not, the parent sees no reason to say or do anything. Nothing has occurred that warrants mentioning or correcting.

This certainly wasn’t always the norm. A generation ago, most parents would give the kid a pointed look or nudge, or you’d hear, “Answer the nice lady” (in a tone implying “or else”). Today, that sort of parent-child interchange is relegated to sitcom flashbacks — moms with flip hairdos, kids in orange and brown plaid. So when did things change? Since when did kids get to determine if they “feel like” responding, and parents accept whatever decision they make?

Probably around the time we came to believe our playgrounds and malls were teeming with child molesters and that playing with a friend requires full-time adult supervision*. Which was around the same time that talking at the top of your voice on the phone, in public, became OK, and R.S.V.P. morphed into “Respond if it suits your mood.”

This combo of unreasonable fear and unapologetic incivility has created fertile soil for a crop of really rude kids. And nobody seems to mind. Most don’t even notice (perhaps they’re too busy talking on the phone at the theater or clipping their fingernails at the restaurant). I wonder, though, why aren’t the grandparents upset? Perhaps they’re simply too tired by this point to care. They’ve done their job. It’s our turn.

At the extreme of the obnoxious scale is the kid who doesn’t just ignore, but actively snubs. She “doesn’t feel like engaging.” So she doesn’t. And that’s OK with mom and dad. One such child — of friends who’ve been to our home and we to theirs — not only ignores my kids’ questions and greetings at random, she frequently turns her back and skips away without responding. Her strangely proud parents say nothing.

But what about the otherwise sweet but sometimes shy kids out there? Fact is, few people are innately outgoing. Most of us feel self-conscious now and then. But being shy won’t excuse you from that work presentation as an adult, and it doesn’t excuse you from common courtesy as a child.

So buck up, kiddo. You’re with your mom, which means you can talk to a stranger. Say hello or thank you or pleased to meet you. Answer the question. And make sure it’s loud enough for the old geezer who asked to hear your response. Because if you don’t, you’re not being shy, you’re being RUDE. And that’s unacceptable.

* I could go on at length about the misguided and misplaced fears rampant among today’s parents, and how it stifles and damages the children they so desperately want to protect. But I don’t need to, because Lenore Skenazy, author of this blog and its companion book “Free Range Kids,” already tackles the subject very well, indeed. Check it out!

(Originally posted Feb. 23, 2010)


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