When I was a child, I was told often, usually by well-meaning family members and teachers, how quiet I was. How shy. I wasn’t a particularly nervous child, and I never considered myself especially shy, but I was always content to spend time alone–I thoroughly enjoyed it, in fact–and I was taught to be polite and respectful from an early age. Coupled with my natural, introspective tendencies and a good imagination, I probably was quieter than many of my peers, at least in a large social situation.
I am a similar way now, although I am in no way shy or lacking in confidence. I just enjoy getting to know people one-to-one. I like to observe and to make meaningful connections. It is not in my nature to walk into a room and demand attention. However, I smile at everyone. I say hello. I chat. I am polite and respectful and open-minded, but I also have my own views, strengths and goals.
Being quiet does not immediately equate to shyness or insecurity. In fact, in my experience, I would venture that many people who are loud, forthright and demanding of attention are often less secure than someone who is calm and content to sit and watch for a while. Not in every case, of course, but in many.
Because of my experience of being labelled ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’, I am careful now, as a teacher, about the ways in which I speak about the children in my class. About the descriptions I use and the assumptions I make.
That label stuck with me for years and made me feel self-conscious and boxed-in, even though I did not feel shy or insecure. The label made me so. It made my natural tendencies seem somehow wrong. As though I had to be loud and chatty and bold in order to be a ‘go-getter’ or to have some personality or charisma.
It is absolute rubbish. Honestly. Just rubbish.
And it’s incredibly harmful to a child’s spirit.
The quietest children often have the most insightful things to say because they watch and they listen. All great writers, actors and artists are careful observers of human nature.
I am not in any way criticising children who are naturally verbose and outgoing. But when did quietness become a negative thing? A thing that needed to be changed or improved upon?
Why do we first comment on a child’s volume or eagerness to speak, as opposed to their kindness, their tenderness, their empathy, their understanding?
Our job as teachers is not to try to change a child, but to nurture them. Not to tell them that they “would be great if they only spoke up a little more.” That is likely to make them retreat further and to ensure that, as a teenager and adult, they feel a constant battle against that shy, insecure, insipid label.
It is about nurturing that child, building their confidence, belief and self-worth, and giving them a safe forum to express their ideas.
This also goes hand in hand with the ways in which we allow children to express themselves at school. How much choice do they have in the way they present their work? Are they allowed to submit a project in any way they choose–by verbal presentation, written essay, hand-drawn artwork or computer project?
Every child has a unique viewpoint and valuable ideas and thoughts to offer, if we refrain from labelling them and allow them to be as they are.
We are there to enable them to be the best they can be as individuals; not to seek to change them.