Our family is heading to a family camp that we attend every year. Our kids love it. It’s like a second home to them. They have friends that attend every year also, which is awesome—for the most part.
Though it’s super fun for them to reunite with peers they’ve known most of their lives, that dynamic also creates the potential for kids who haven’t attended the camp before or who don’t go every year to feel left out. None of these kids would intentionally exclude anyone, but it happens so naturally and easily that we have to prepare them to watch out for it.
I’ve always had the goal to raise my kids to be “includers.” I want them to be the ones who notice a kid sitting by themselves and invite them to join whatever they and their friends are doing. All of this sounds very noble and admirable on paper, but it’s not as simple as it sounds for some kids.
The challenge is that I have three rather introverted, shy kids who would almost rather die than walk up and talk to someone they don’t know. They’re comfortable and outgoing amongst their friends, and if someone talks to them first they can hold their own, but it’s way, way outside their comfort zone to approach someone they’ve never spoken to. They have all of the compassion to be includers, but little of the social prowess to translate that compassion into action.
I get it. I was a shy kid, too. Those folks who have always been outgoing have no way of understanding this, but asking shy kids to approach a stranger—even another kid—and extend an invitation is akin to asking them to walk through fire.
But I also know that it’s not an insurmountable issue. I know that helping them learn this skill will be invaluable throughout their lives. I try to honor my kids’ shy personalities, but there are some situations where shyness keeps them from doing the right thing, and that’s not okay. That’s not what I want for them, and it’s not what they want for themselves.
So we came up with a simple script for them to follow. When we talked through this issue, we decided that all they really need to say are four words. That’s it. Four little one-syllable words. Anyone can do that, right?
They simply approach the lonely-looking kid and say, “Want to join us?”
Four words. Twelve letters. “Want to join us?” We could even combine the first two words into “Wanna” and make it three words.
When you put it like that, it seems a heck of a lot less daunting for timid kids.
If you’re thinking that seems like a no brainer, you’re right—but if you’re thinking that, you also probably don’t have a shy brain. It’s simply not that obvious to kids who experience anxiety at having to speak to new people. A big part of what’s uncomfortable is coming up with the right words. “Do I say ‘Hi’ first? Do I introduce myself first? Should I ask the person how they’re feeling?” These questions plague shy folks like you wouldn’t believe. Everything you think to say feels awkward, and it’s just too painful to deal with that much awkwardness.
Making it a four-word, one-question task makes it feel much more doable. You don’t have to make it a big deal. You don’t have to get into a whole conversation. We go through the rest of the scenario, too, so they don’t get hung up on all the “But what if”s. “Want to join us?” is literally a yes or no question, and the kid will either accept or they won’t. If they accept, great! If they don’t, you can add two more words—”You sure?” (We explain that the kid might be just as shy as they are, and if they get that sense and the kid still doesn’t want to join in, they can say, “Okay! You’re welcome to join us if you change your mind,” and go back to their business.)
For kids who aren’t naturally social butterflies, giving them a script that’s easy to remember and follow can be a hugely helpful way to pull them out of their shell—especially those kids who really do want to be includers but struggle with finding the courage to approach someone new. Their heart might be in the right place, but if they don’t show that through their deeds, their empathy and compassion doesn’t really do anyone any good. (And gently pointing that out can help give them the push to want to practice that skill as well.)
Most of us want to raise includers, but some kids need some hand-holding to figure out how to be one. Shy kids are often the most empathetic, so giving them specific tools for making sure kids don’t feel left out can be a big relief for everyone involved.