Q. Our daughter, 4 1/2, is very sweet, sensitive and enjoyable, but she's also a shy, slow-to-warm-up child, which makes her different from the neighborhood children and from her many cousins, too.
It's taken me time to adjust to her differences and to accept them and anticipate her needs. Although she enjoys going to her nursery school three afternoons a week, she is alarmed by new situations.
A birthday party, for instance, is overwhelming, so we talk about the party beforehand, guessing the guest list and the games that might be played. We also arrive first -- to give her time to warm up -- but she still clings and begs that my husband or I stay with her.
We've noticed this shyness for the past three years, but I can't convince my husband -- and to a certain degree, myself -- that our daughter's temperament and personality is her own and we can't do much about it. He thinks it developed because I went to work full time when she was 4 months old -- a joint decision -- but we leave her with a loving, kind woman who is very sensitive and patient and disciplines her just as we do, and I read with her after work and take her to the grocery store, the library, etc.
I wish we could make it on one salary, or that I could work part time, but my employer can't reduce my hours. On the other hand, I like the work pretty well, and my job is stable, strictly 9 to 5, has great health benefits and has pulled us through some rough times, since my husband's situation is less secure than mine.
But does my absence make my daughter act the way she does? We love her very much but are baffled by her intense shyness and her insecurities. Will she outgrow this stage?
A. You'll be able to change your daughter's temperament about the same day you change the color of her eyes.
Some people become shy during their school years, because they're embarrassed about their looks, or their abilities, or some problem they think they see at home, but other children are shy from the get-go, and it doesn't matter whether their mothers work or not.
Nobody knows whether it's genetics or some kind of prenatal stress, but about one child in 10 is born to be shy, and nine out of 10 shy children get over it, often by the fourth grade.
You'll help your daughter most by respecting her needs and her temperament -- by treating her, in short, just as you do and then a little bit more, so she won't be quite so intimidated when she goes to school. If she can lose some of her self-consciousness now, she'll find it easier to ask a question in class or to confide in the teacher when she's worried.
You'll help to break down home and school barriers in the future if you help her bridge the gap between home and nursery school now, by inviting a classmate over once a week to make cookies or help you deliver some neighborhood fliers. If a shy child has a job to do, she won't have time to think so much about herself.
Family gatherings can be almost as intimidating as school, especially if the cousins are bigger and wilder. Your little girl will be a bit more relaxed at these occasions if you let her have a slightly older, quieter cousin come over every week or two for an overnight, and she'll probably enjoy birthday parties more if she only goes to the small ones. More than a half-dozen children can be pretty overwhelming to a shy child. You might also try getting her to the party a little late, rather than a little early, so the other children will be too busy to notice her, and so she'll feel a little braver. If you're as anxious as she is, she's going to think there's a good reason to be nervous.
Your daughter also will feel more comfortable with neighborhood children if you can time your library visits to coincide with the Saturday story hour. Some branches even schedule them at 7 or 7:30 in the evening, so working parents can take them in their nightie-nights. It's a good way for children to socialize without having to say much.
By letting go, in gentle ways, you help her throw off the shackles of shyness at her own pace, but she'll probably always be a little more reserved than most people, and she may be a little more of a watcher than a doer.
There are many exceptions, however. As Philip G. Zimbardo points out in "Shyness" (Addison-Wesley, $6.95), shy children often turn into actresses, politicians, reporters, ministers and other public people. It's not so hard to talk to people when you can turn yourself into somebody else.
Whatever happens, you can be sure of one thing: You're going to love your daughter, just the way she is. As long as she knows that, her shyness won't be a real problem. Questions may be sent to P.O. Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.