Amidst the rush to find socks and complete homework and mediate arguments, you might pause as Valentine’s Day approaches to wonder: “Will this child I love ever have a special someone in his or her life?” It may seem distant from the morning’s discussion of why ketchup is or is not a vegetable, but in your mutual future you know it is coming: crushes, romance begun and ended via text, and that sweet smile you love, directed at someone else. But how does that first connection even occur, and why does it come so easily for some, but not for others?
Some children seem to connect to others effortlessly. They appear fearless in the presence of strangers, which might suggest that shyness is no problem. They submit to their curiosity in others and – in many cases – are met with a rewarding response. These kids aren’t afraid to put themselves out there; they aren’t afraid of rejection. For others, a show of apprehension around new people could be a sign of shyness and difficulty making connections to come. Perhaps these kids will wait, frozen in their seats, for love to come knocking.
For a long time, scientific findings have suggested that shyness is a fixed aspect of temperament written in our DNA, which endures through the lifespan. Children who displayed shy, or “inhibited,” behaviors were expected to grow up to express similar attributes in adulthood, and those who displayed bold, or “uninhibited,” behaviors should continue to do so as well. Because DNA remains the same from cradle to grave, it stands to reason that the characteristics our genes fostered in us, shyness or certain types of intelligence for example, would remain relatively constant. Born shy, always shy…right?
In their book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley point to recent findings that suggest there’s a whole lot more going on in our DNA than we realize. In a groundbreaking study, biologist Michael Meaney and colleagues show evidence that DNA can be “turned up” or “turned down” according to life experiences. You might have the shy genes, the bold genes, or something in between, but your experiences – especially in the first 10 or so years – will determine whether those genes “say” anything at all.
This gives new meaning to the way we – parents and educators – interact with children. Just as it makes sense to reward children for making positive connections with others, it’s easy to become protective of those kids that seem naturally apprehensive. Each child arrives with her own temperament, her own natural style of interacting with the world, but those characteristics are just as likely to change as to stay the same. That fearful child could grow up to be the life of the party, and that bold child could become a timid adult. When we make assumptions about what children need solely on their natural temperament, we run the risk of cutting them off from potential strengths; we reinforce the barriers that hold them back.
Think back to a time when you had your eye on that special someone. Maybe you made the first move, maybe you didn’t. Either way, a connection happened because at least one of you took a risk. You reached out without knowing for sure whether you would be taken in. You threw assumptions to the wind and let yourself fall into the unknown. We know that our children will need to do the same, and not just with love, but with friendship as well. The lesson for us is the same as the one we try to give them: Don’t assume anything.
Perhaps Shel Silverstein said it best in his poem “Listen to the Mustn’ts:”
Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me-
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.
-Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends
Image Credit: Disney/ABC Television Group (Cover Photo), Duncan Hull (DNA Blocks)