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The other day at the grocery store my daughter was loudly expressing herself.

“Back, Mommy! Back there!” I was lost in my own world, figuring out what was left on my grocery list and where I was headed next and she was tuned into the background. I was snapped out of my reverie by the voice of a complete stranger: “My, aren’t YOU bossy!”

I watched my child retreat within herself, grab my coat with both hands and pull her face into my sweater. I don’t know if Ms. Stranger assumed a misstep on her behalf and rambled on in a nervous attempt to cover up her faux pas upon seeing this, or if she simply lacked the powers of observation to know when to stop. Because she continued anyway: “Oh, my niece was just like that when she was that age. Why, I used to take her to the swimming pool and she would tell me exactly what she wanted me to do and how she wanted me to play…”

I’m not sure why she assumed I was in any way obligated to continue this interaction with her. Nod. Smile. Beat a hasty retreat down the aisle only to have her strolling towards me with each pass up the next aisle.

The problem with labels

There will be many labels placed on our children throughout their lives. I am not in any way suggesting that labels are entirely a bad thing. Indeed, the nomenclature of a cluster of symptoms to help describe a syndrome or disease and thus dictate a course of therapy or treatment can be invaluable in alleviating those symptoms. Our children will need a label or a diagnosis if they are to acquire needed services within the school system and I am in favour of responding to our children and their individual needs. But above all this there needs to be a sensitivity as to how labels can affect us. While some people find relief in finally being given a name for their experiences and a comfort in finding they are not alone, many labels carry stigma and negativity.

While some people find relief in finally being given a name for their experiences…many labels carry stigma and negativity.

Like “bossy”. Really? A pre-schooler clearly expressing her needs and desires is not a good thing? Consider the alternative: a child who knows that their requests will go unheeded and has stopped asking. I wasn’t paying attention. She may very well have, and probably did, ask quietly and politely the first time and didn’t get a response. But a stranger in the grocery store has no context for our relationship or interaction. Judgments abound in all of us in our brief passing encounters.

My child is also “shy”. But don’t we all have some degree of social hesitation, if not anxiety, when faced with a new or unknown situation? Personally I’ve faced social situations or invitations that leave me a little apprehensive. Who else is going to be there? What are you wearing? I’ve never been there before, will you wait for me outside so we can go in together? How many people will be there? Where is it again?

A sense of safety

Ever felt nervous about your first day at a new job or class? Me too. And so do toddlers whose only sense of control over the world around them is that their caregiver is present with them in an entirely new room or new set of people, or both. They cling to their sense of safety like a raft. This sounds foreign to you? People smile smugly as the child, five minutes later, is running all about the room and has made a new friend. But haven’t we all stood at the doorway, navigating a room to see if there’s anyone there we know or would like to meet and wondering where to proceed to next, gathering a sense of social safety and finding security in knowing how to exit the room or situation if we feel uncomfortable? It is only then that we can fully be comfortable and enjoy ourselves. But no one approaches us and says, “Awww, are you shy? There’s nothing to be afraid of here” and pulls us into the middle of a crowded room of strangers. Let’s also be respectful of our children’s feelings and individual comfort zones. Just as there are a broad range of social comfort levels for adults, so there are for children.

…haven’t we all stood at the doorway, navigating a room to see if there’s anyone there we know…and finding security in knowing how to exit the room or situation if we feel uncomfortable?…Let’s also be respectful of our children’s feelings and individual comfort zones.

I attempt to pay attention to the language I use and frame my labels positively. A shy child is one who is cognizant and secure in stating their boundaries. And personally, this is something I want instilled and reinforced in my child. She has no way of knowing that a person or situation is safe. And as she grows older and ventures farther out into the world without me, what if one day it isn’t? Are we conditioning our child’s sense of safety out of them and teaching them to ignore their cues of discomfort or anxiety? Because those things are there for a really good reason and one day I’m not going to be there to guide and protect her. And her internal security system is what she’s got to work with. I am not going to attempt to teach her to ignore her sense of safety. If she’s going to continue to trust herself and learn that the world around her is safe, she has to have trust in me first.

It’s important to me that she sees me speak assertively and with clarity to those who make her feel bad, or those who, with their words or labels, instill a sense of shame. So with an attempt at civility (because she probably didn’t mean ill-will) I respond to Ms. Stranger to show my daughter that she also has a voice that she can use to protect herself. “Yes,” I say, “my daughter also loves to swim. She’s also really good at letting me know how she wants to play. I love that about her.” My daughter needs to know that I support her. And then I turn away.

Now leave us in peace to finish our grocery shopping.

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