Q: Our 7-year-old is very shy. He doesn’t enjoy the social activities, including sports, that other kids his age are generally involved in and would rather play alone. He has one friend who is also quite shy. His mother and I have conspired to arrange weekly play dates, but both kids sometimes balk at cooperating with them, though the boys get along fine. My son occasionally tells me he’d rather read or play alone than play with this other boy. When I ask why, he tells me he “just would.” His school counselor has recommended that the other mother and I put the boys together on a regular basis no matter what. My son does well in school, does his homework on his own, is very creative and is a happy camper when it’s just us and his older brother. Your thoughts, please?
A: As your great-grandmother might have said, “It takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round.”
Like any other trait, sociability is distributed among a general population of children according to the bell-shaped curve. Theoretically, for every child who is very outgoing, there’s a child who is very shy. According to several studies, most shy children have fully “recovered” by age 30. That finding, in fact, applies to yours truly.
While reluctance to engage socially with other children can result from trauma, most shy kids are simply “born that way.” I put the term in quotes because no one really knows what causes some otherwise high-functioning kids — as appears to be the case with your son — to be socially reticent from an early age.
Like your son, many if not most shy children are independent, intelligent, imaginative and creative and, therefore, very adept at entertaining themselves. They are inclined toward hobbies, art, musical instruments and other activities that don’t require the participation of other children. Whereas they’d rather play alone than in a group, shy children are more socially empathetic than highly outgoing kids. They feel very secure in their families and may, therefore, bond more effectively to their families’ values than outgoing kids. In other words, shyness has a positive side.
Forcing a shy child to engage in group activities is likely to increase social anxiety, so I don’t recommend it. Arranging one-on-one activities or play dates with another shy child will probably be mutually beneficial, however, so I agree with the school counselor — you and the other mother should continue conspiring. If your son complains that he doesn’t feel like playing with the other child, simply say, “You don’t have to. I’ve invited them over because I enjoy [the other mother’s] company.” I will bet they’ll end up playing with one another.
As much as possible, do outdoor things. Go to a park and fly kites, enroll both boys in golf lessons (a great sport for shy kids), go on hikes, take field trips to museums. These sorts of activities will provide good opportunities for them to form a stronger relationship. Whereas you can’t fool Mother Nature, you can push her along a bit.