Journal entry: December 15, 2004 (age 35)
Today was a lazy day, perfect for staring off into space. I was in a meta mood, so I spent some time thinking about the act of staring. What is often a solitary activity can also be an interpersonal behavior governed by complex social rules. As children grow up, they slowly learn the intricacies of do’s, don’ts, and oh-good-Lord-don’ts. By age 5, most know not to throw their food. By age 10, most know not to throw their baby brother. By age 15, most know not to throw the car into reverse while daddy’s driving. But some behavioral rules seem to be inborn in us, even when those rules are complicated and difficult to define.
Such is the case with the rules surrounding when it is or is not appropriate to stare at someone. We as a species seem to have agreed to certain hard and fast rules about staring. It is OK to stare at someone who is having a conversation with you. It is not OK to stare at someone who is having a conversation in the next booth over at Denny’s. It is OK to stare at an actor onstage, a speaker giving a presentation, or a teacher going over a lesson. It is not OK for those people to stare at one particular member of their audience. (“Did YOU have any questions about this slide, Nancy from Accounting?!”) It is OK to stare at a person sleeping on the bus. It is not OK to stare at someone else on the bus and mouth the words “You are getting sleepy.”
But to me the most interesting rules are the ones governing staring at babies. Have you ever noticed that a group of people gathered on an elevator, on a street corner, or in a waiting room will all look at the floor, their hands, or a magazine rather than dare to make eye contact with each other? And yet, if a parent and young child walk in, everyone in the room is given a free pass to look at them. Ah, sweet freedom! Stare at them. Nod. Smile. Make funny faces. Depending on whether the funny faces are made at the parent or child, this can go on for some time. Sometimes you can engage in a secret, goofy communication with the child, your face instantaneously changing from deranged monkey to disinterested bystander with each glance from the parent.
We all know it’s OK to stare at babies. But how do we all know the age at which you can no longer stare at a kid? We can’t put a year on it, and yet we all know the situation when we see it. It is probably the elusive “age of reason” that developmental psychologists place somewhere between 7 and 10. This plateau must be visible in the eyes of a child, causing them to respond to your look with a spark of “whatta you lookin’ at?” Then we know they know we’re watching them eat mommy’s make-up, and they know we know it’s none of our business. So we go back to reading Popular Mechanics until the nurse calls our name. Or until an actor playing a sleeping bus patron comes in with a newborn.