An extraordinarily shy child. A child who would rather collect vacuums than fly balls. A child with a deep love of all things Tolkein rather than all things Twilight. Parents love all these children even if their peers don’t. Parents also worry about them and how their unique personalities or interests may be affecting their child’s social life and even their future.
Laura Anderle-Smith is a West Allis English and theater teacher. Her husband, Robb Smith, is a Milwaukee actor and director who has worked with almost every theater company in the city. The performing arts are the routine of their household, not just an interest or hobby they share.
It’s no surprise that their son, who is 9 years old, is a theater lover to his core. Anderle-Smith describes it as nothing less than his “passion.” So much so, that he recently did a report on Shakespeare for a class project. She was able to help him find a historically accurate costume to wear as part of his presentation.
“He was concerned about it looking like a dress because he chose a tunic,” she says. “I said, ‘You have to accept that there are people who are going to laugh at you. Maybe not in your face but behind your back.’”
The young theater buff was very happy with his report when it was over. However, his interest in theater and performing has made it hard for him to relate, at times, to other boys his age.
“There are moments where he gets pretty stressed out by the fact that his interests are different from other kids,” Anderle-Smith says. “He has one really good friend, (a boy), but all his other friends are girls—because they get it.”
Dave Kasir, of Milwaukee, has an 11-year-old daughter with interests her peers do not always share. She finds it hard to relate to both girls and boys.
“She’s not a girly girl like other girls,” Kasir explains. “She is into stuff like Pokemon, Bakugan, Magic and Lord of the Rings—more boy stuff, but she doesn’t really relate to boys, either. She sort of finds them annoying.”
Kasir thinks his daughter is frustrated that she has trouble finding common ground with other children, especially since her younger sister can make friends “with her eyes closed.” His older child reads a lot and tackles some fairly heavy-duty material for her age.
“She’s really into mythology and that kind of stuff,” Kasir says. “She kind of escapes into that world.”
Kasir says it is very difficult to see his daughter’s sadness. “Kids today can be cruel and she feels like she gets picked on. I don’t like to see her get depressed about that, especially at an early age,” he says. “I’d like to see her be more like a child and be more playful and active but that’s just not who she is.”
Emily Begel and her son have a different conflict. The Milwaukee mother of two is an outgoing, extroverted person with a son who is painfully shy.
“I don’t understand shyness,” Begel says. “I have compassion toward it but I don’t get it. I don’t get why you’re scared to talk to people, but Charlie is.”
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Charlie, who is now 5 years old, was born prematurely. A pediatrician warned Begel that Charlie would likely be a sensitive child, a prediction she says has come true. It has meant some very difficult times for a mother who does not normally view social situations as a hurdle.
“The toddler years were the worst. We were in a playgroup and we would get to people’s houses and it was brutal,” Begel describes. “I would cringe every time we had to do anything social. It was challenging to say the least, a constant source of worry for me.”
Begel briefly feared her son might have an anxiety disorder or something worse. As time passed, her husband helped her understand Charlie is just very shy, something he understands because he was shy, too.
“I give my husband credit for that because he’s really opened my eyes to the emotional component of this,” Begel says. “He’s been giving me insight and pointing out specific things with Charlie—like that he’s not anti-social, he just doesn’t need to be the center of things.”
Ed de St. Aubin is an associate professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, a psychologist and a specialist in family dynamics. He says Begel’s situation is a good example of children teaching their parents some important lessons.
“We’re very comfortable talking about top-down situations where parents create children and in some ways, children really socialize parents,” he says. “There are a lot of us, particularly professionals, who feel like we’re in control of our lives and we make things happen. Then we have children and realize we’re really sort of in the back seat.”
Anderle-Smith’s son’s interest in theater is something she supports because of her own love of the fine arts. However, sometimes she does worry about him, especially when she can tell he is upset about being different from his peers.
“I have had those moments when I thought, ‘If he could just pull out the Legos and build a city....’ Then I think this is who he is and by denying it we would cause a huge amount of mental stress,” she says.
Because of that, Anderle-Smith and her husband find ways to show their son there are famous men who have made careers out of singing, dancing and acting while still making sure he and his sister take part in things like soccer, baseball and track. They want their children to understand there are lots of fascinating activities in the world.
“I want them to be well-rounded people,” she says. “We have to work harder to pull in the other, whereas other parents have to struggle harder with the fine arts.”
Kasir talks to his daughter about making friends. While he has worked to raise his girls to appreciate some unusual things, he also has explained to his daughter that if she tries to like some of the things her peers like, she might find it easier to connect.
“I tell her that even if you don’t like certain things that other kids do, sometimes you need to put a game face on and participate, and sometimes they might do the same for you,” he says. “It’s like a relationship.”
De St. Aubin says it is a good idea to really assess your child’s happiness from time to time. He suggests parents pay attention to what makes a child happy and why.
“Look at the child’s life from the child’s perspective: Is the child happy? It may not be that they have 20 really close friends but that may not be important to them,” de St. Aubin points out. “If their special interest is destructive video games and they’re spending hours playing it, that’s not good. If they have a peer or two that they’re close to, that’s OK.”
When Kasir’s family immigrated to the United States more than 30 years ago, he did not speak English. He became the class clown as a defense against teasing. He hopes his daughter can find something like that—within reason—to cope. “It‘s sort of a tightrope,” Kasir says. “You want them to get along with other kids but not be taken advantage of.”
De St. Aubin thinks unusual interests are great for children. He says behaviors and interests that are different and not destructive may not attract other 12-year-olds but are good things for kids to develop. After all, popularity in school is no guarantee for the future.
“When you look at some of the most successful adults out there, they were not the most popular kids in high school,” he says. “They might have been a little different.”
De St. Aubin recommends parents take a child-centered approach with their children. That means listening to your child, observing him and thinking about how he will react in different situations.
For Anderle-Smith, that means supporting her son’s passion for theater by helping him learn to write scripts, build sets and block scenes.
“No matter how it’s received by the people around him he needs to have a positive experience,” she says.
It is also important to remember that parenting is a “reciprocal” relationship and taking what you can from that.
“Parents create children, but in so many ways children really create parents,” de St. Aubin says. As another parent of a child who loves the performing arts, he adds, “I know a lot more about musical theater than I ever thought I would.”
This story originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.