What to do about a 4-y-o who stares?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 29, 2011 06:00 AM

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Hi Barbara,

Can I first say that I love your column, and read daily :) As a relatively new StepMom with no kids of my own (yet!), I feel that it's a great resource and forum for any parents. I've definitely learned a lot!

My husband's daughter from a previous relationship is 4. She spends two weekends with us per month, and it is always smooth sailing. She's a smart, energetic, playful, well-behaved, WONDERFUL girl. I am, however, interested in what is "normal" staring behavior for a 4 year old. She tends to stare at any stranger that is in close proximity, whether it's an adult or another child- her staring is not discriminatory! We're not talking vacant stare here either, it's always directed at a person. She stares in church, in restaurants, at the beach, anywhere we go. I think staring at other children may indicate a desire for her to play with them (she's an only and can be a little shy), and when appropriate we try to help her approach the other children. But is this normal behavior for the age? How can we appropriately teach her this is impolite? I'm curious more than concerned, but should I be concerned?

Looking forward to getting feedback from you and your readers!

From: StepMom, Concord, MA

Dear StepMom,

I do not think you should be concerned. In fact, while once it a while a staring child can make you think, "Oops, is my lipstick on my nose?" most adults take it in stride, knowing this is age-appropriate behavior. (If she were 8 or 10, it would be different.)

Kids her age take the world in in different ways and in varying degrees and as they become more and more cognitively aware, they are making observations and noticing differences: Why is that lady fat and this one thin? Why does that girl have long hair and this one have red hair? It's just part of human development to notice and catalogue. Why does my dad wear a tie to work and John's dad wears a uniform?

At some point, she will begin to form opinions on these differences. You know that song from "South Pacific" -- "You have to be taught"? Children mostly learn that an attribute is good or bad from us, and often not because we say so explicitly but from our body language or emotional reactions.

She will likely outgrow this on her own. But some kids need help with social cues. You can coax this along in the same way that you teach about please and thank you : "When you ask for something from someone, the rule is to say, 'Please.' Saying please is called being polite and having good manners." First, Introduce the concept of staring: "Do you know what 'staring' is? It's when you look at a person for too long. It's not good manners because it makes a person feel icky." Demonstrate for her the difference between looking at someone and staring. Tell her, "The rule is, it's OK to look, but not to stare." Help her practice and then, if she wants, you can offer to have a non-verbal signal so you can remind her when she's staring.

Sometimes when a child stares, of course, it's because something is out of their realm of experience and it's almost shocking to them: The first time she sees a young child in a wheelchair, or someone with lots of tattoos, are two possible examples. Anticipate those moments by telling her, "If you see something that surprises you about a person, the rule is you can ask me about it later but it's still not OK to stare." Rules are always the best way for young children to understand social conventions because they're such concrete thinkers, and it's always a good idea to end by asking, "Do you have any questions?"

By the way, given that you're her step mom, I suggest these rules come from her dad.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

4 comments so far...
  1. Maybe this LW shouldn't be concerned but to say she will probably outgrow this on her own, I am not so sure. How will a child know it is bad manners to stare unless they are taught. Yes kids are curious of other people and something they find interesting ABOUT the person. But now is the time to start instilling manners and respect too. They don't know until they are corrected. She doesn't mean to be rude but she doesn't know that it IS rude to stare. Teach her now.

    Posted by JD July 29, 11 07:31 AM
  1. This 4 yo has already suffered a major emotional earthquake in her life--that is the separation of her birth parents. This probably happened before she was fully verbal.

    I don't think that staring is rude--most preverbal children do it for short periods to strangers on public transit. They visibly relax when you smile or otherwise show positive interest. Then they usually go into a game of peekaboo that is fully interactive with the stranger.

    In THIS case I would guess that the longer "staring" is a long slow reading of body language. THIS little girl might be trying to assess the reliability of new people using the most accurate evidence that exists. The LW should be thankful that the little girl has such a good instinct of self-preservation. The LW could be more expansive about expectations before going out to social events, without any word about the staring. That will probably reduce the eye contact to what is more comfortable to the LW's perception of "normal".

    Posted by Irene July 29, 11 10:00 AM
  1. LW here. Just for the record- Dad communicates and enforces the rules of our family. My role with her is more play and education-oriented. Once rules have been communicated though, she and I frequently discuss what they mean and why they're a good idea, so your conversation notes are really helpful.

    And thanks to JD as well, whether or not she outgrows it, I'm sure it won't hurt to have a discussion.

    It may or may not be pertinent, but when I said "relatively new StepMom," I meant new from my perspective. She has known me more than half of her life- a long time for her, but not long for me!

    Posted by StepMom July 29, 11 01:11 PM
  1. Are you sure that this is staring at? Or might it be staring past? Not necessarily vacantly, just...not focused on the person. In a world full of people, it's not always easy to ensure that one's eyes aren't pointing at anyone. If she's lost in thought, she probably doesn't even realize what or who she's looking at-- because she isn't looking at someone, she's merely looking in their direction.

    We teach our kids that it's not okay to avoid eye contact with other people, but that it's also not okay to maintain that contact for too long, and it's further not polite to have one's eyes constantly darting around. Your stepdaughter is four. Teens and twenty-somethings are still figuring out the proper balance.

    Posted by MNGrad August 7, 11 02:42 AM
 
4 comments so far...
  1. Maybe this LW shouldn't be concerned but to say she will probably outgrow this on her own, I am not so sure. How will a child know it is bad manners to stare unless they are taught. Yes kids are curious of other people and something they find interesting ABOUT the person. But now is the time to start instilling manners and respect too. They don't know until they are corrected. She doesn't mean to be rude but she doesn't know that it IS rude to stare. Teach her now.

    Posted by JD July 29, 11 07:31 AM
  1. This 4 yo has already suffered a major emotional earthquake in her life--that is the separation of her birth parents. This probably happened before she was fully verbal.

    I don't think that staring is rude--most preverbal children do it for short periods to strangers on public transit. They visibly relax when you smile or otherwise show positive interest. Then they usually go into a game of peekaboo that is fully interactive with the stranger.

    In THIS case I would guess that the longer "staring" is a long slow reading of body language. THIS little girl might be trying to assess the reliability of new people using the most accurate evidence that exists. The LW should be thankful that the little girl has such a good instinct of self-preservation. The LW could be more expansive about expectations before going out to social events, without any word about the staring. That will probably reduce the eye contact to what is more comfortable to the LW's perception of "normal".

    Posted by Irene July 29, 11 10:00 AM
  1. LW here. Just for the record- Dad communicates and enforces the rules of our family. My role with her is more play and education-oriented. Once rules have been communicated though, she and I frequently discuss what they mean and why they're a good idea, so your conversation notes are really helpful.

    And thanks to JD as well, whether or not she outgrows it, I'm sure it won't hurt to have a discussion.

    It may or may not be pertinent, but when I said "relatively new StepMom," I meant new from my perspective. She has known me more than half of her life- a long time for her, but not long for me!

    Posted by StepMom July 29, 11 01:11 PM
  1. Are you sure that this is staring at? Or might it be staring past? Not necessarily vacantly, just...not focused on the person. In a world full of people, it's not always easy to ensure that one's eyes aren't pointing at anyone. If she's lost in thought, she probably doesn't even realize what or who she's looking at-- because she isn't looking at someone, she's merely looking in their direction.

    We teach our kids that it's not okay to avoid eye contact with other people, but that it's also not okay to maintain that contact for too long, and it's further not polite to have one's eyes constantly darting around. Your stepdaughter is four. Teens and twenty-somethings are still figuring out the proper balance.

    Posted by MNGrad August 7, 11 02:42 AM
add your comment
Required
Required (will not be published)

This blogger might want to review your comment before posting it.

About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

Submit a question for Barbara's Mailbag


Ask Barbara a question

Barbara answers questions on a wide range of topics, including autism, breastfeeding, bullying, discipline, divorce, kindergarten, potty training, sleep, tantrums, and much, much more.

Send your questions to her at:
meltzbarbara (at) gmail.com.
Please include your name and hometown.

Child in Mind

Moms
All parenting discussions
Discussions

High needs/fussy baby

memes98 writes "My 10.5 month old DS has been fussy ever since he was born, but I am getting very frustrated because I thought he would be much better by now...has anyone else been through this?"

More community voices

Child in Mind

Corner Kicks

Dirty Old Boston

Mortal Matters

On Deck

TEDx Beacon Street

RSS feed


click here to subscribe to
Child Caring

archives