I cannot stress enough how important it is to get eye contact from your child. Imagine how you feel when you are talking to your spouse and he doesn’t look at you. Sure, maybe he hears what you say, but is he truly listening? When my husband does this and I ask him if he’s really listening, he will repeat back the words I just said verbatim. It’s great that he can hear me while not looking at me, but is he truly listening and thinking about what I’m saying? Probably not. And perhaps more important, his lack of eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. (Fortunately, he doesn’t do this too often.)
The same is true of your interactions with your child. Do you really expect him to listen to you and obey your instruction if he isn’t looking at you while you give it? While an adult is potentially capable of listening without giving eye contact, a child is not. Children tend to focus on one thing at a time. If they are occupied with a toy and not looking at you, they are not listening to you.
Not requiring eye contact is one of the biggest mistakes of the threatening, repeating parent. It is very easy for your child to ignore you if he doesn’t look at you. It is then easy for you to escalate your demands and threats–not to mention your volume. Your child will then tune you out and you get absolutely nowhere. You may end up disciplining your child and you both end up stressed out and in tears. You could find yourself alternating between giving a consequence, repeating your instruction, his continuing to ignore you, more consequences, his lack of focus on the task, etc. You could keep at it for hours–if you haven’t given up by then–and still see little to no progress. Requiring eye contact is such an easy fix to this problem. It’s quick and it starts you off on the right track.
In addition, a lack of eye contact can often mean that a bigger issue of disrespect is at play. Above I mentioned how my husband not giving me eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. It could be that your child isn’t giving you eye contact because he doesn’t think you are worth listening to. If you are a threatening, repeating parent, your child likely has little to no motivation to look at you or engage in your conversation. If you spout out idle threats and never follow through with what you say, he won’t respect you or take you seriously. He has learned that what you say is not what you mean. He expects you to offer idle threats and start yelling. Who would want to listen to that?
By contrast, a child who offers eye contact regularly is more likely to be obedient. The eye contact shows a respect for your authority and a willingness to obey your instructions. In addition, the child who gives regular eye contact is a pleasure to be around. He is comfortable looking into anyone’s eyes and will even initiate a conversation with another adult.
If you are in the beginning phases of the training process, you may need to physically lift your child’s chin to make him look at you after you call his name and require a “yes, mommy”. If he resists you lifting his chin, you may need to get down on his level and hold his face while you speak to him. Be sure to keep your demeanor calm and don’t manhandle him. If he expects you to be contentious, he will resist you for sure. Don’t let it become a power struggle. If you feel yourself starting to get angry, walk away and work on your anger next time. And by all means, do not give your instruction until you have achieved eye contact.
Even now, after training William for a year and a half in these techniques, there are times when I have to remind him to give me eye contact. When I call his name, he will automatically say “yes, mommy” but sometimes it is so rote that he forgets to look at me, especially when he is engaged with some toy. All I need to do is simply say “eyes” and he will look at me. I don’t repeat his name. I don’t give my instruction. I don’t escalate into threats and anger. I will say just the one word until he looks at me. As soon as he looks at me, I know I have his attention and can move on to giving him my instruction.
If my instruction takes a minute or two to explain, I don’t let him take his eyes off of me until I have finished with my explanation. If the TV is on or for whatever reason he has a hard time maintaining eye contact, I will verbally remind him or gently hold his chin until I am done.
Also, offer your child the same courtesy. If he engages you in conversation, look in his eyes to show him that you think his words are meaningful and that you understand what he is saying. Even if your toddler is speaking gibberish, look at him. You are teaching him the value of eye contact, respect for others and the simple mechanics of having a conversation.