This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on April 16, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine
Comment: I really love this Q & A column. I always read it and even if the information doesn’t pertain to me, I usually know someone that it does and will send it along. I now have a question of my own!
From Luanne: Thank you so much! The questions are great. I’m so glad the column is helpful. Sometimes it is a team effort among those that work at Health Affiliates Maine – lots of moms and lots of counselors, all whom willingly share their thoughts with me. The answer to your question was one of those joint efforts! Thanks to Marylena Chaisson, Heather Moreau, Lana Herring, and Andrea Krebs for insights and contribution to today’s answer.
Question: My little guy is seven and very curious about the world around him. He is not shy in the least and often will ask questions to strangers. Sometimes these questions can be received as insulting rather than as he means them—in curiosity. He has asked questions about someone’s weight, their race and even why someone had a rash on their arm. We have had a lot of conversations about how his questions can be received and even had a plan for him to ask me questions first and then we decide together if he can ask others. He is a bit too impulsive for this plan to have ever worked though. I fear that by seven, these social skills should be in place and am wondering if there may be more to it. I would love to know how to best talk to my son to help him understand he can be curious but needs to be cautious.
Answer: Your child is at a natural age of curiousness, and he is wondering about differences in people. Your son’s questions are very appropriate for his age. Seven is an important early learning time which prepares him for the future when he will be functioning more on his own. Managing his curiosity and impulsiveness is an important skill, and he needs practice! You can help him by addressing each issue on the spot or shortly after to ensure the learning. Naturally, you have to quickly assess when it is best addressed. Sometimes this situation is more uncomfortable for the parent, so having key phases to use can be helpful, for example, “Tommy loves to connect with people but he is still learning the right kind of questions to ask.” Having a signal like a gentle squeeze of the hand indicating that they have crossed the line may be helpful, and then addressing the question later.
Learning to manage his impulses is a big part of the picture, which you seem to recognize. Games can be helpful, such as Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Follow the Leader which will give your child opportunities to practice impulse control and train his brain to listen and have better self-control. This is a fun family activity. This is a good time to introduce empathy; children are capable of understanding when someone’s feelings may be hurt. Help him recall when perhaps someone pointed something out that he may be uncomfortable with, or could have been teased about. This makes for a parallel connection and can start him on a path of recognizing that everyone struggles from time to time with problems and disabilities which affect the way we look, feel, and act. Life also teaches lessons. One time my little son asked a man in an elevator why he was bald. The man quickly asked him, “Why are you so short?” Sometimes the rebuke from a stranger can foster your child to be more careful in the future. Also, talking about diversity and differences as a part of everyday conversation, and being matter-of-fact about everyone not being the same, is helpful. Exposing kids to diversity – whether it is playmates of different races or ethnicities, or toys like the American Girl dolls, which now have options for wheelchairs or other physical accommodations – is important to make accepting differences very natural. Always give him positive attention when he expresses kindness, helpfulness and appropriate conversation, which will help him gain confidence.
It is positive that your son has some comfort in speaking to strangers. Sometimes as parents, we overdue “stranger danger” warnings and children don’t end up practicing important social skills like greeting people with a smile, speaking when spoken to, and making eye contact.
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”