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
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.
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