In addition to modeling good relationships for our kids, we need to prepare them to join with others, so they’ll be capable of becoming a part of a “we.” After all, just because the mind is equipped and designed to connect with others doesn’t mean that a child is born with relationship skills. Being born with muscles doesn’t make you an athlete: you need to learn and practice specific skills. Likewise, children don’t emerge from the womb wanting to share their toys. Nor are their first words “I’ll sacrifice what I want so we can strike a mutually beneficial compromise.” On the contrary, the phrases that dominate the vocabulary of toddlers—“mine,” “me,” and even “no”—emphasize their lack of understanding of what it means to be a part of a “we.” So they have to learn mindsight skills like sharing, forgiving, sacrifice, and listening.
Colin, Ron and Sandy’s son who seems so egocentric, is for the most part a very normal kid. He just hasn’t quite mastered many of the mindsight skills that are necessary for participating as a contributing member of a family. His parents’ expectation was that by the time he was seven, he’d be more integrated into the family and willing to be a part of a “we.” While he’s steadily improving his relational intelligence, he needs practice to keep moving in that direction.
The same goes for a shy child. Lisa, a mom we know, has pictures of one of her sons at his friend’s fourth-birthday party. All of the children are gathered in a tight circle around a young woman dressed like Dora the Explorer. All, that is, except for Lisa’s son Ian, who insisted on standing six feet away from the circle of not-so-shy kids. It was the same at his toddler music class. While the other children sang and danced and itsy-bitsy-spidered their little hands off, Ian sat in his mom’s lap and refused to do anything more than timidly observe.
In those years, Lisa and her husband had to walk the line between encouraging new relationships and pushing too hard. But by giving their son repeated opportunities to interact with other children and to figure out how to make friends, all while supporting and comforting him when he was nervous or afraid, they helped their young introvert develop the social skills he needed. And while these days Ian is still not quick to dive headfirst into new social situations, he is very comfortable with himself, and even outgoing at times. He looks people in the eye when he talks to them, raises his hand in class, and is even frequently the ringleader in the dugout for a (very enthusiastic) rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Researchers who study human personality tell us that shyness is to a large extent genetic. It’s actually a part of a person’s core makeup present at birth. However, as in the case of Ian, that doesn’t mean that shyness isn’t changeable to a significant degree. In fact, the way parents handle their child’s shyness has a big impact on how the child deals with that aspect of his or her personality, as well as how shy the child is later on.
The point is that parenting matters, even to the extent of influencing our inborn and genetically shaped temperament. We can help prepare our kids to join with others and experience meaningful relationships by offering encouragement and opportunities that help them develop those mindsight skills. We’ll talk in a minute about some specific ways to do that. But first let’s explain what we mean by helping kids be receptive to being in relationships.