Posted by: Kate | March 9, 2009

Onstage and Backstage

Before I had kids, I knew a lot more about parenting than I do now.  I had lots of theories and ideas, lots of plans and expectations.  The good news is, the early days of sleep deprivation fuzzed out my brain enough that I didn’t much notice, or care, as one tidbit of knowledge after another faded in the face of reality.

One such theory actually lasted quite a while: that a child’s level of boldness, or shyness, could be heavily impacted by the personalities and efforts of the parents.  Having spent far too much time studying psychology in various iterations, I’m well acquainted with the nature/nurture debate: are personality traits genetically coded or are they shaped by our upbringing?  I believe that genetics creates a certain range of possibilities, and then environment determines where in that range a child falls, and that different traits have different ranges (that is, different levels of susceptibility to parental interference).  For instance, I think your musical talent is largely prewritten, you’re either born with it or (I’m) not, and parents can try to encourage the playing of an instrument but they can’t impose the innate sense of timing and tunefulness that true musicians have.  And, in contrast, I thought that shyness had a wide range of possibilities, that you were born with a certain command of the room and desire for attention, and that your family circumstances played a very heavy role in determining whether you would grow to be a bold, self-assured kid, or a quieter, reserved sort.

I believed that second bit, actually, for several years, because Emily came out of the womb demanding attention and has been an actress since before she could walk.  She’s not needy in a whiny, insecure sort of sense, she’s just happiest when eyes are upon her.  She rarely walks into a room; she jumps, skips, runs, bounds, and sometimes explodes.  She’ll talk to strangers, in stores or museums or parks, to the point where we’ve had to work hard with her on internalizing the idea that if a stranger were to ever ask her for help or to get in a car, she needs to say, “I need to ask my mom,” and then run like hell.  She’s just a bright, shining star… sometimes exhaustingly so.

I figured this was due heavily to the influence of Willem and myself.  I was a shy kid, painfully so, convinced that no one would want to hear what I had to say and that I’d probably say something wrong.  Willem says he was shy, too, but in stories and home movies, he comes across as more intense, more sensation-seeking.  I have always seen a lot of Willem in Emily, though – and this is why I’m still married – Willem has figured out how to channel and control his more spastic tendencies.  So I thought that the combination of Willem’s genes and both of our efforts to create a healthy sense of self-esteem had resulted in an extremely self-possessed, bold sort of kid.

(This does not, by the way, translate to being popular or surrounded by friends.  Both Willem and I had a hard time making friends as children, and Emily very rarely gets calls from friends for play dates or sleepovers.  The difference is, Willem and I were upset by it; we felt less-than, somehow, not-good-enough.  Emily honestly doesn’t seem to notice.  I wonder, sometimes, if it’s possible to be too comfortable in one’s own skin.)

Then Jacob came along.

Since we were pretty happy with the results the first time around, we applied the same parents and philosophies to the second child.  And he could not be more different from his sister.  He’s a more thoughtful kid, more willing to try new foods, less of a sleeper.

And he’s shy.

Not permanently; no, once he gets comfortable with you, he’ll talk your ears right off your head.  And he’ll never forget you, so after a few meetings, he won’t even bother with the initial few seconds of shyness.  But instead of having to work with him on how to avoid strangers, I’ve had to work with him on how to wave politely when someone greets him, because he’s so initially avoidant.  He seems content with himself and fairly self-assured – he’s not easily bullied or pressured – so I don’t worry that this lack of boldness goes along with a poor self-esteem or a basic unhappiness in the world.  He just observes for a while before diving on in.

I truly believe we raised the kids similarly, with the obvious exception of Jacob having a noisy, intense older sibling in the house from Day One.  If anything, I would have expected Emily’s intensity to encourage Jacob to be more attention-seeking, as well.  Instead, they have each found their niche, and I don’t think I had much influence at all on it.

Over the past few years, I’ve given some thought to what the kids would be like as adults; what careeers they would choose.  I’ve joked that Emily is going to be a rock star, and Jacob will be her stage manager.  But, really, it’s not that unlikely.

If only Emily could carry a tune…


With grateful acknowledgment to JMLC for the topic idea…

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