Should We Force Shy Kids to Do Class Presentations?

Here’s what experts say.

A student gives a presentation in front of class.
Photo by Thinkstock

Taylor Lorenz’s recent piece in the Atlantic about kids who want to abolish the in-class presentation has predictably triggered the kind of older people who think children today are far too pampered and indulged. But do these young critics of public presentations have a point? And—to pose a broader question about our requirements of the younger generation—should parents and educators force kids who are shy to do the social things that scare them? Lorenz asked kids and teachers their opinions. I wanted to see what psychologists thought.

There is a big difference between experiencing a garden-variety fear of public speaking, which is extremely common, and having social anxiety disorder. Young people with the latter, psychologist Jonathan Dalton told me, have extended physical responses to public speaking; it’s not the same as just being a little scared beforehand and coming through OK. “One of the things about social anxiety disorder that’s most pernicious is that nonsufferers have the illusion they understand it,” Dalton said. “They can say, ‘Oh, I understand this problem. I used to have a hard time giving a talk when I was in high school.’ That’s like saying ‘I have major depression’ and the teacher saying, ‘Oh, I used to be sad in high school too.’ ”

For people with anxiety disorders who have a fear of public speaking, Dalton said, the difference is physical. “The average person who’s giving a public presentation, their blood pressure and all those measurements of body activation will be elevated for about eight minutes when you begin a presentation,” Dalton said. “With someone with social anxiety disorder, it can be elevated for about 90 minutes.” The situation feels grave to the person suffering through it; Dalton said he once had a patient threaten suicide at school and end up hospitalized because of a mandated class presentation.

Still, Dalton said he doesn’t believe the answer should be to avoid presentations altogether. He said he counsels parents that avoidance of events that may provoke anxiety will only “make more room for anxiety to grow.” “So much of what we do is parent training,” Dalton, the director of the Center for Anxiety and Behavioral Change, told me. “The more compassionate the parent is, the more they want to reduce the child’s suffering. And I always tell the parents, ‘I promise you the anxiety will fill whatever space you give it.’ ”

Even setting aside a clinical diagnosis like social anxiety disorder, what we perceive as “shyness” itself may be partly biological—and not actually about shyness and sociability at all, but rather about a person’s reactions to unexpectedness and unfamiliarity. In their book The Long Shadow of Temperament, psychologists Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman wrote based on their findings that we could assess children as early as 4 months of age for a set of responses that would classify them as “inhibited” or “uninhibited.” “Inhibited” children react to unexpected events, like the appearance of a stranger or the popping of a balloon, with expressions of stress that “uninhibited” children don’t.

Kagan, Snidman, and other collaborators have followed children across their childhoods to see how those biologically determined temperaments did and didn’t affect children’s lives. In the end, they write, a naturally inhibited child might end up shy and reserved, or she might not; the temperamental bias “is embedded in a family context that, over time, creates a psychological profile.” The relationship between a child’s biologically determined temperament and the work that nurture does is infinitely complex, which is why this is an interesting research question.

Psychologist Doreen Arcus, studying these questions about temperament, found that inhibited children who lived with parents who practiced “authoritative parenting” in the kids’ first few years ended up what she described in a phone call as “less fearful, less timid, less stressed.” Children judged “inhibited” but whose parents placed strong limits on their behavior and let them protest those limits had experienced strong emotions, come through them, and realized that those emotions would come to a close. Arcus theorized this enabled those children to respond better to unfamiliar situations as they grew older. In explaining this to me, Arcus used the example of a toddler who is getting into the cat food. The parent might deny the child the experience of sticking her fingers in the kibble, by moving the bowl or the child, and endure the child’s protests before moving on to a new activity. Or the parent might distract the child with some other object of desire (Arcus used the Tupperware drawer as an example), so the baby never has the experience of being frustrated. The inhibited child who has been allowed to feel challenged in different situations had a better chance of losing some of his innate fearfulness.

Arcus said authoritative parenting—as opposed to permissive, neglectful, or authoritarian parenting, the less-effective alternatives—is about a mix of sensitivity and strong expectations. The steps she suggested to acclimate shy younger children to an activity they fear are the opposite of “throwing them in the deep end.” “Would your child really like to be swinging on the swings, but it’s just too painful?” she asked. “You can work up to things in small increments.” A parent could tell a child she can walk by the swings today, but she definitely needs to try to swing tomorrow. The next day, the parent could bring the child to the swings, and have her try swinging, but promise that she can leave after five minutes. “Sometimes, four minutes and 59 seconds comes, and the child is OK,” Arcus said. “And you can say, ‘You want to try another five minutes?’ ” Along the way, the parent should praise the victories. Authority, in this framework, looks more like responsive firmness than strict or angry insistence.

This concept of progressive acclimation, which Arcus described in the context of younger children who fear certain social situations, reminded me of the strategies Dalton told me he and his colleagues might pursue with patients with social anxiety disorder who were afraid of in-class presentations. He told me he might have the patient follow a multistep process: first, to read a kids’ book aloud, with an audience only of a psychologist; have the patient do an original presentation in front of a psychologist, with a camera on, and then email the file to the teacher; have the patient and the teacher watch that file together; have the patient do the presentation with a peer in the room; finally, have the patient do the presentation in class. It’s an art, Dalton said. “We don’t just throw the kid to the wolves and say, ‘It’s just anxiety, do this anyway.’ ” For kids without social anxiety disorder who have a more moderate fear of class presentations, teachers could do a modified version of this graduated introduction to the concept—presentations in pairs, then in groups, with conversations along the way about strategies you can use to cope with the fear that public speaking often arouses.

The answers I got from Dalton and Arcus, which confirm that avoidance is not the answer, might seem to reinforce the predictable arguments of people who think these kids need to suck it up. As the epigraph to the new Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt book The Coddling of the American Mind goes: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” The saying is attributed to “Folk wisdom, origin unknown.” The authors hold this idea up as evident common sense (even as their critics strongly refute its implications). Why let shy kids, such people grumble, claim an exemption for themselves? After all, we all did class presentations, and we survived.

But when it comes to shyness and social anxiety, “the road” has changed before. In the United States in 2018 we reward boldness, curiosity, self-assuredness, and social ease; the parent of a naturally uninhibited child will get a lot of compliments, even if some of that brazen sociability and lack of fear comes from the child’s biology. But it wasn’t always so. “Before Freud,” Kagan writes, “a child who conformed to parental requests, was cautious in dangerous situations, and remained quiet with adult strangers was regarded as having a good character. After Freud, this child was classified as anxious.” Historian Barbara Benedict writes, in a history of early modern inquiry, that children and adults who were very curious about the world were once seen as dangerous and disruptive instead of laudable founts of ingenuity. The Victorians perceived shyness, Joe Moran writes in his delightful cultural history of the trait, “as an unwavering disposition, a force one could never defeat, as fixed and as little one’s fault as a tendency to suffer from gout or piles.”

We older people think of the “road” as common sense, “the world the way it is.” Of course you have to be able to talk to people you’ve never met. Of course you’ll need to do presentations. That’s just the way it is. But as a parent or a teacher, you always make personal judgments about the things children will need to do in order to survive “the road.” In this argument, as in so many intergenerational conflicts, a little adult humility would go a long way. Yes, your child probably should present in class. But you don’t have to be a jerk about it.