Researchers have found what many personal testimonies will confirm: Most shy children, even the most painfully shy of them, are not shy adults. The progression from introversion to extroversion does not require therapy, behavior modification, or any extraordinary measures. More often than not, it just happens.
Most shy kids outgrow their shyness by their young adult years, and even those who do not outgrow it manage to cope with it reasonably well. They learn how to hide it, mostly, because they realize that shyness puts them at a disadvantage in certain situations.
Yours truly is a living testimony to the transformation in question. I was socially awkward until I went to college where, on a whim, I auditioned for the role of lead singer in a rock band and suddenly found myself on stage with four musicians behind me and hundreds of people in front of me. I had to cure myself of my life-long affliction, and I did. Today, as friends will attest, I am sometimes not shy to a fault.
Looking back, I do not think there is anything my parents could have done to cure my childhood shyness. Both of them were outgoing people, by the way. So much for the supposed cause-effect influence of role models. Outgoing can raise shy, and vice versa. My social awkwardness didn't abate until I was forced to make a choice between shyness or being a campus rock star. That's a no-brainer for an 18-year-old.
But this column is not really about childhood shyness. It's about the distinction between a child's personality and behavior. Personality can be likened to the stretched canvas surface upon which an artist begins a painting. If the artist doesn't like the way his painting is progressing, he can paint over what he has done, but, mind you, the canvas surface remains as it was at the beginning — a constant.
The analogy is meant to illustrate that whereas personality (the canvas surface) doesn't change, behavior (what one puts on top of the surface) can be changed. So, returning to my personal example, I forced myself to overcome shyness, but unbeknownst to even my closest friends, I'm still the same shy person. My behavior has changed, however. Who changed it? Me!
Likewise, as research has found, a child comes into the world with a fairly set personality. He's more or less destined to be fundamentally shy or outgoing, patient or impulsive, introspective or superficial. His behavior, however, can change.
Sometimes, behavior change in a child has to be leveraged by people who comprehend its long-term ramifications. So, an impulsive child can be trained to pay attention and think before he acts, but that is never going to "come naturally." Sometimes, however, behavior change — as in my case — can only be brought about by the child and won't happen until he wants something badly enough.
So, going back to shyness, parents sometimes ask me what they can do to cure a child's shyness. My answer is, "The effort is likely to lead to lots of frustration for both you and your child, so I wouldn't recommend it." But a parent who tells me that her child's shyness has manifested in rude behavior? That's different. Rudeness, being behavior, can be corrected and for the child's sake, I definitely recommend it.
Write to family psychologist John Rosemond at The Leadership Parenting Institute, 420 Craven St., New Bern, N.C. 28560 or email email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, not every question will be answered.