What to do when others stare

A few thoughts about when people stare


I read a Facebook status post recently from a grandma whose grandson has PMG (a rare brain disorder, click here to read more). This wonderful grandma was really disheartened by the treatment her family received in a restaurant by the staff and the other patrons. From what I could tell, the major issue and cause of her concern was the staring and cruel looks.

Reading her post brought back some memories for me, causing me to pause and reflect.

I have had people stare at my children before. When my first child was born he had Juvenile Xanthogranuloma. A few days after his birth, hard nodules of cells formed in several places across his body, two of them being prominent on his forehead. They were the size and shape of M&M’s, almost as though I glued two skin-colored M&M’s on his forehead. Everyone wants to ooooo and ahhhh over a newborn, but those bumps on his forehead caused most everyone to pause–more errrs and uhs than oooos or ahhs.

Some people would kindly ask about them while others would try not to look as they made other conversation. As a new mom trying to find out what was happening to my son, and worrying about the possibilities the doctors were trying to narrow down (including cancer) all the while enduring medical tests and evaluations, it was difficult to field others’ stares when I was trying to process all this myself. I was worried what a lifetime of stares would mean for him–I often said “children can be so cruel.” Soon I began to believe that adults could be cruel, as well.

The whispering behind us as I passed in the store would bother me: “Did you see that baby’s head?” One day waiting for our doctor’s appointment, a lady less than tactfully yelled across the waiting room, “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR BABY’S HEAD?!”

I didn’t say anything in return, but when I went out to the car I was flaming mad and came up with the perfect comeback. Are you ready for it?

“His bumps are going to go away but I am pretty sure you will be STUPID the rest of your life!”


Staring bothered me, questions about his head bothered me, the silence when someone peeked over his car seat and pretended to not notice bothered me…all of it bothered me.

Thankfully, cancer was ruled out and a diagnosis was found. Over the next couple of years the bumps faded along with the stares.

Years later, the stares would come not from the aesthetics of my children, but from their public behavior.

carter flying

“Carter-ness” in action

When my third son was little, we didn’t have much understanding of him or what his world felt and looked like. In addition to his wonderful way of seeing the world, along with his brilliance and his humor, he also had difficulties: meltdowns, ignoring personal space, touching everything, throwing things–each of which I couldn’t explain or stop.

An Asperger’s diagnosis at age 9 helped with this understanding, but when he was 3, 4, 5 years old and I had another baby in tow, we had neither understanding nor explanations.

And the stares came.

Sometimes the staring was easier to ignore because I was too busy trying to handle his ‘Carter-ness’ myself, and sometimes they were impossible to ignore because I was busy trying to handle his ‘Carter-ness’ all by myself. I felt a lot more judgement attached to the stares, the whispers, and the silence than I had with my oldest son because it was behavior related–people don’t necessarily expect parents to control their children’s skin disorders, but do expect parents to handle behavior issues.

As I look back now with hindsight that only time allows, I realize this: there were not very many safe plays for a stranger in my book. Staring, not staring (and avoiding our gaze), asking, and not asking…it all bothered me. Because I was still struggling to figure this all out myself. I was still trying to get my feet under my own emotions; forget being able to process the feelings and emotions of others.

I recall coming across a quote when my first son was a baby that went something like this:

“Staring is the brain’s way of catching up with what the eyes are looking at.”

It did help when we ventured out to stop looking for others’ staring glances. And when I noticed the stares, I would try to tell myself, “They don’t realize they are staring as their brain is processing this visual information.” Sometimes I would smile inside my head when I realized that some people where just really ssssllloooowww to process what their eyes were looking at.  🙂

I realized that I attached my own feeling of how I was parenting to other people’s silent stares; it was my lack of confidence in what I was doing that led me to put thoughts and feeling into others’ silent looks.

Over the years I have trained myself to look for the friendly faces in the room or the store. Those whose eyes seemed to whisper understanding. Or I looked for the smiles of kindness. In time it got to the point where I would smile so that others around me could take the cue.

family picture

I guess what I am trying to say is that when dealing with our children and their health issues, we can look around the world for proof of cruelty or we can look for understanding.

When understanding is lacking, we can create understanding with our own confidence in mankind. It is looking at a stranger and feeling like if they knew better they would do better, and if they got to know me (or my child) they would love me.

It is lending some grace to others when perhaps they are either not quick enough to find understanding, or they flat-out act in ignorant ways.

ig·no·rant: adj. lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular; discourteous or rude

I try to give the benefit of the doubt and go with the first definition rather than the second.

When others do act out poorly I can be grateful for the wisdom, understanding, and compassion that I have gained from parenting a child that may cause others to stare–the unconditional love, the patience, and gratitude that I have learned in my unique role as parent. It is a wisdom that experience has not yet lent them.

It also reminds me to be that set of caring eyes and that quick understanding smile to others who may be on a similar journey.

We can look for the cruelty in this world or we can be the  change–the kindness, the understanding, the compassion–that we want to see in the world.