February 19, 2019

The Trick

When I was teaching teens who were learning English as a second language in local public schools, I learned that, for some of them, making direct eye contact ran counter to the cultural norms with which they’d grown up prior to arriving in the States. Thus, I walked a sort of tightrope with them. On the one hand, I had to be mindful of their cultural background and also remember that – as refugees – they’d already endured quite a lot in their young lives and were overwhelmed with the acculturation process at every turn. But it was also part of my job to help them learn American norms, and I’d have been remiss if I’d failed to teach and encourage them toward adopting our expectations regarding eye contact. Sometimes it was best that I nudge them toward looking me in the eye; at other times, it was okay to let them rest in their comfort zone. The trick for me was learning when to do what.

Now as a mom, I’ve learned the same delicate balance exists with my own kids. Though I see a bit of a shift since so many – kids and adults alike – have become (sadly) dependent on constantly looking down at their phones, our culture still places high value on making direct eye contact during conversation. As parents, we often say things like, “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” because we see that as a demonstration of a child’s respect for our authority. We also want to look our kids in the eye to measure whether or not they’re telling the truth. And we know that – in American culture – making good eye contact is a sign of confidence, which we want for our kids.

For their long-term benefit, we should teach and model this norm (and, as an aside, get our own eyes unglued from our phone screens!). But if we want to build deep and abiding relationship with them, there’s also a time and a place for giving them space to look down or away. Sometimes it was simply too overwhelming for my students to make direct eye contact, and the same is true of our kids. But if we create opportunities to interact with them when eye contact isn’t required – i.e., before bedtime in a dark room, while we’re driving with them next to us or in the backseat – they’ll very often pour out important stuff they need and want to tell us.

Finding the right balance for every child is hard, and we won’t always get it right; I know I sure haven’t. But if we purpose to correctly discern when to require eye contact and when to orchestrate less threatening opportunities for our kids to share, we’ll figure it out more often than not. The key is remembering that making direct eye contact and having permission to sometimes avoid it both serve important purposes in a child’s life as we seek to maintain and grow our relationships with them and also facilitate the development of good character in them. The trick for us is learning when to do what.


Photo Credit: pxhere

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