What to do if you have a shy kid who doesn't want to do/try anything???

Yesterday, thanks to Twitter, I decided a fun thing to start doing from time to time would be to take parenting questions. It makes sense, considering I’m currently doing an edit pass on my non-fiction book; How To Raise Your Kid Without Losing Your Cool, before I begin the process of trying to acquire an agent for it. I’m also a guest host on CBC’s daytime talk show, The Goods, talking all things parenting, and have recently been tapped by Huffington Post to contribute an online piece on the same subject. A follower, by the name of Angela tweeted at me wondering if I’ve ever given advice over twitter about the topic. Her query made me realize that I had not. This reality brought me to where we are now.

Tweet a parenting question at me, and I will dedicate a post to it.

Angela is first out the gate. She asked me for some advice, and just in case any of you out there reading my blog have the same, or similar query about your own child, I thought I would turn it into a post. So here we go, the thing that makes Angela go “hmmm” in regards to her eleven year old daughter is; “My 11 yo is very shy. Terrified to try new things no matter how much I encourage her. Any thoughts on what else I can do?”

Hi, Angela, okay, so this is a tiny bit tricky since I don’t have any back story on your daughter. I don’t know if something happened to her along the way in her development that has caused her to have this fear of trying new things. So I will go with the fairly safe bet that nothing huge happened to her, other than the normal stuff that tends to happen to kids, which is, she tried some stuff when she was younger that she probably failed at, or it didn’t go as well as she had hoped it would. Within that “failure” there may have even been some peer shaming that happened…kids can be so cruel to one another when one falls down. This is something I address in my book, the art of respect. Which is, simple, treat others the way you want to be treated. If your little friend tries something and they’re not very good at it, help them to become better at it, don’t make fun of them when they’re already feeling vulnerable, and disappointed within themselves. Too few parents are teaching this to their kids, and we MUST get back to it. Empathy. Support. Kindness.

We didn’t encounter this issue that you’re having with your eleven year old until we had our youngest. Our older two girls were fearless, up for anything, and honestly never had the thought that something wouldn’t be fun, easy, or cool. Getting them to try new stuff was quite easy. We also would make a deal with them; if they wanted to try anything that required a financial investment from us, they needed to see it through to the end. No on a whim sports, activities or anything that needed financial backing from us, without some sort of commitment from them. So if they wanted to figure skate, they signed up for the entire session, went to every practice, and were only allowed to quit once they had given it a fair kick at the can. There were some things we insisted that they had to do, which they weren’t that fond of, like marital arts, and piano. We wanted them to reach a certain level with different skills that we thought were good for them, before they were allowed to walk away. They were usually pretty easy going about it all. When Mikaela entered the picture, she was also very open minded, and keen to try anything and everything. That is until she began to “fail” at things. Failing at things for her looked like; not going up a level in gymnastics, or not running as fast as the other kids in track in field, or if she fell tons skiing. Unlike her sisters, Mikaela found deep embarrassment in what she classified as “failing” we called it learning, but for her, she classified it as failure, and failure wasn’t something she was fond of if. She’s much softer, more sensitive than her sisters, so it was only fitting that she would be harder on herself, and judge herself in a way that nobody else did. This was tricky to get around, since the way she interpreted, and felt things was so strong it was hard to talk her out of the idea that not being awesome at something was nothing to be ashamed of. It was hard to parent her out of her belief that she was no good at anything. But we managed to do it. In fact we did it so well, that she was our only daughter who went to sleep away summer camp, she also lived abroad in Switzerland for half a school year last year. She has actually ended up being one of the bravest people I know, and, somebody who is now willing to try anything once. This from a little girl who, for quite a long while was too shy, scared, anxious to try anything at all.

So I have this to ask you Angela. Have you gotten to the root of why your daughter doesn’t want to try anything? Have you had conversations about whether or not her lack of interest is rooted in fear of failure, insecurity, or good old fashioned kid laziness? If it is the latter, then you need to do some tough parenting here and tell her that she must find ONE activity to get involved in. Just ONE. Everybody has one thing they are curios about. It’s up to you to find out what her one thing is. Maybe it’s painting, pottery, writing, singing, piano, martial arts, knitting, or volunteering to read to smaller children, anything. She must have something that interests her. And if her one thing is TV enroll her in a kids production course. Something, anything to engage, and stimulate her. Here is the thing with kids, it is our job to teach them the reality that they can do anything they set their minds to. It is our job to give them the confidence that fear is not the most powerful thing in the world, they are more powerful than their fears, and the truth is that whatever is holding her back from trying new things is only keeping her from being her best self.

Ask her this one question, a question I still ask my girls anytime they’re against the ropes. “If you could build your dream life, have your life be everything you could ever wish for it to be, if failure were not an option…what life would you build for yourself? Visualize it. Meditate on it, and then live it.” Have this same conversation with your daughter, leave her to think on this for a few days, then ask her what ONE thing would she love to try if she was guaranteed it would go well for her. Then tell her that she has no choice. That she needs to pick that one extracurricular activity to try.

And if she says “no” or “I don’t wanna.” Tell her that if she doesn’t pick one, you will pick one for her. At the end of the day, activities help to develop the child as a whole in ways that sitting around their house with their family simply cannot. Once she does this exercise a few times in her life, she will learn two things; 1) failure isn’t as bad as she thought it would be and 2) she’s braver than she thought she was.

Good luck to both of you!