Attitudes toward children's shyness have varied over time. These changes frequently reflect cultural shifts in child-rearing goals, interpersonal relationships, or perspectives on femininity and masculinity. In the United States, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the early part of the twentieth century, shyness was regarded as an ideal characteristic for white middle-and upper-class girls, one that ultimately protected their chastity and limited their participation in the public sphere. Domestic fiction written for these girls celebrated the virtues of silence and meekness, while pundits warned them against displays of wit or learning. Some girls seem to have taken these lessons to heart, for a number of foreign visitors complained that it was nearly impossible to engage them in conversation; however, other travelers' disparaging remarks about American girls' decidedly unfeminine self-confidence and outspokenness suggest that not all girls embraced the shy ideal.

White middle-and upper-class boys had a different relationship to shyness. While some degree of timidity may have been acceptable in the home, shyness was a liability among other boys. Nineteenth-century boy culture valued boldness, self-assertion, aggression, and conflict, all qualities at odds with shyness. In his interactions with his peers, a boy engaged in games, dares, and pastimes that left little room for fear of others, and instead taught him to impose his will on other boys.

Adults did not display a great deal of concern about boys' shyness until the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when fears about the feminization of American society focused attention on the apparent lack of manhood among white middle-and upper-class boys. A new term, sissy, was created to label insufficiently manly boys and men, and shyness and timidity were identified as two of his prominent characteristics. To reclaim their masculinity, shy, retiring boys were urged to fight with other boys, join all-male organizations like the BOY SCOUTS, or toughen up their bodiesat the YMCA.

Changing Attitudes

By the 1920s, shyness was no longer a valued quality for white middle-and upper-class girls, either. In his influential study Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928), psychologist JOHN B. WATSON argued that the ideal child–girl or boy–was free of shyness and able to meet and play with other children easily and openly. This change in attitude toward girls' shyness was due, in part, to the newly emerging culture of personality. Spurred by a growth in leisure activities and consumerism, the previous century's culture of character, with its emphasis on adult self-control, self-sacrifice, and discipline, was replaced by a culture of personality, the key ingredients of which were the ability to appeal to others and to be noticed for one's appearance, poise, charm, and manners. Personality formation became a new goal of child rearing, and a good personality for white middle-and upper-class girls and boys was considered by child-rearing experts to be one devoid of shyness. By the late 1940s, parents were largely in agreement with experts: interviews revealed that parents considered shyness in all of its shadings, including self-effacement, quietness, and insufficient gregariousness, to be an undesirable personality trait in boys and girls.

In the 1950s, child-rearing professionals writing for a white, middle-class audience continued to sound the alarm about shyness. They warned of dire consequences if children's shyness was left unchecked, including school failure, alcoholism, institutionalization, and suicide. Despite this inflammatory rhetoric, parents were given relatively little advice regarding what to do about their children's shyness. At most, mothers (as the assumed primary caregivers) were counseled to encourage greater independence on the part of their shy children and to provide opportunities for them to be with other children. The rest was up to the child–she or he had to learn to face the fear of other children and to get along with them. Getting along well with other children was particularly important during the 1950s, a period in which sociologist David Riesman characterized Americans as increasingly other directed, that is, concerned with securing others' approval and liking. Shy children risked being rejected by their peer group as too submissive; the ideal personality struck a balance between reserve and sociability.

The 1970s saw the introduction of several new ideas about children's shyness, as well as a slight softening of tone regarding the implications of shyness for white middle-class boys and girls. A number of authors of child-rearing manuals argued that shyness was a phase that many young boys and girls went through, related to anxiety over the new and unfamiliar. As a temporary phase of a child's development, parents had much less to fear from shyness. The experts did not mean, however, that parents could ignore it completely: child-rearing experts continued to offer advice to parents on how to help shy children overcome what they still regarded as a decided interpersonal disadvantage. This advice was more complex than it had been in the 1950s, introducing ideas from behavioral psychology like positive reinforcement and systematic desensitization. Rather than simply provide playmates for their shy children, parents were now required to take a more proactive role in managing their children's shyness.

An Inherited Handicap

Beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing into the mid-1990s, many child-rearing professionals began to argue that shyness, previously considered a learned condition, was, in fact, an inherited trait. Some responded to this new perspective on shyness by emphasizing previously unreported positive aspects of shyness–such as good listening skills and empathy–and encouraging parents to simply accept shy children as they were. Most, however, argued that despite the inborn nature of shyness, shy children could be taught to be more outgoing. The key to this training was for parents not to push shy children to change too quickly, and above all, never to label them as shy, for to do so would encourage the child to accept the label, and all it implied, as fact. This aversion to the shy label suggested that, despite the experts' general tone of acceptance toward what was now, after all, assumed to be a characteristic, like eye color, inherited from one's parents, children's shyness remained highly stigmatized, a handicap to be overcome with patient effort on the parents' and child's part.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life; Gendering; Parenting.


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