Eye contact

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.



Filed under first-time obedience, prevention

19 responses to “Eye contact

  1. Atara

    I call that “yelling from the couch” parenting. Most kids don’t listen to a parent yelling commands from the couch.

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  3. Do you ever allow talking to each other from the next room where eye contact can’t occur, or do you always require your kids to come up to you? I live in a three story house and honestly I can’t see myself going to my kids/spouse every time I need to talk to them.

  4. Maureen

    When you’re talking to your spouse, it’s a different story. If it’s a quick one- or two-sentence thing, you probably would talk to him from the other room. But if it’s a longer discussion you would likely go to him, right? My lazy way with my husband is calling him on his cell phone from the house phone. It doesn’t allow eye contact, but at least I’m not shouting. We also used walkie talkies when William was born. If I was stuck in the nursery nursing and needed something, I could talk to my husband without shouting. But when I have something important to say, I will go to him or ask him to come to me.

    But it’s different with kids. I would suggest that even at 4-5 years old, you don’t let your child roam the house. You keep him near you. You will still want to be limiting his freedoms and not give him free reign of the house. That was something we had to correct with William. At 2.5 he would roam the house at will entering any room he wanted and helping himself to the stuff in those rooms. It was sort of like my husband and I assumed the other person was watching him (when probably nobody was). Not good. Now, the only time he’s upstairs by himself is when he’s in roomtime (which means he’s not allowed to leave the room). So at this age, you would still be near him and could easily get eye contact. As they get older and have more freedom in the house, you would require them to come to you. But you would still go to the top or bottom of the stairs to be sure they can hear you. You might test it out with your husband (can you hear me from where you’re standing, kind of thing).

    The only caveat I make to the eye-contact principle is when I’m asking a question of him rather than giving an instruction. (Note however that whether you can do this depends on the characterization of the child. If they always ignore you, you wouldn’t be able to do this.) William is now allowed to be in the playroom by himself. It’s downstairs with me, but just in the next room over where I can’t see him unless I go look. Well, I will call his name (no doubt he can hear me) just to check in on him and ask him what he’s doing. I’ll call his name, he’ll give me an immediate “yes, mommy”, I then ask something simple like “what are you doing?”, and he’ll reply immediately. Now, if he didn’t reply immediately or if I had some type of instruction to give him, I would go to where he could see me or require him to come to me.

    Thanks for the comments. I hope you’re enjoying the blog!

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  10. Allie

    I’ve been reading your blog and I agree with everything and I know in my heart it’s the “right” way to do things. I am familiar with ezzo ways, I do have their books. I have often wondered how others do following these principles so I was thirlled to stumble upon this blog. The problem for me is, well, I guess I just get overwhelmed. I have 4 boys, 2 older and 2 that are almost 4 and 1 1/2. I feel as time goes by I’ve come to the conclusion I am a better parent of older children than the littler guys. I know this sounds terrible. What struck me especially is when you were talking about your little one not roaming the house. My almost 4 year old does this. I’m not presently doing any room time on their own, but I do want to start trying to implement many of the ideas. I’m just not sure how to rein him in. I have several goals I want to work on with both children. But especially the 3 3/4 year old. I am ashamed to say he rules the roost and I don’t want my other little one to start down this path. Outside of eye contact, yes mommy, and roomtime are their other things you would absolutely do first to rein in a little guy like mine?

  11. Maureen

    I’m glad the blog is giving you inspiration to improve things in your home. And yes, do get a handle on it now before your little one starts picking up the same habits. Don’t feel bad for doing better with the older ones. I’m the same way with newborns. Not my favorite phase unfortunately. Those three things are definitely the ones to start first. I would add say what you mean and mean what you say to the list. You must think through every word you say to him and follow through on every word. No means no and yes means yes. It will do wonders in getting him to respect your authority. And in addition to having him say “yes mommy” you might want to work on getting him to come to you when you call his name, especially if he’s one to roam the house. Make a game out of it and have practice sessions. Go to another room and stand up against a wall. Call his name. Then give him big praise when he comes and says “yes mommy”. Do your non-conflict training beforehand so he knows exactly what you expect. Just take it in baby steps so you don’t get so overwhelmed. And find the right time to start. Maybe wait until the weekend when your DH is home to help with the little one. You will want your DH to learn from your example, too, so it would be good to have him around to watch you.

    Also, I’m somewhat reluctant to share this link with you because it might be too much, but take a look at this site. This link here is about teaching obedience: http://www.raisinggodlytomatoes.com/ch03.asp. I don’t agree with everything she says, but she does have several good ideas. And just beware while reading. I can get overwhelmed when reading this site because it makes me feel like we need to do it ALL right NOW. It brings out the authoritarian in me. Not good. But it’s good food for thought. If you start to feel overwhelmed, bookmark it and go back to it later.

    Good luck! Feel free to come back with more questions.

  12. Maureen

    One more thing: check out this link on tomato staking: http://www.raisinggodlytomatoes.com/ch07.asp

    I intend to do a post on freedoms but haven’t gotten to it yet, so this should help.

  13. Allie

    Thank-you so much Maureen. I will certainly look into the other web site and take it slow. How nice it is to just have good suggestions and kindness! This is a great work you are doing helping others.

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  17. Rachel Bergeron

    Thank you so much for this blog! I think it’s a wonderful tool to help me be a better parent.
    I feel like I have been doing “bad” FTO exactly the way you describe it with my 3.5 year-old son… I’m so far away from doing it the right way, it seems…

    My son Joseph has never really made eye contact with us, from when he was born. It struck me, when he was about 2 months old, how much he would always look away from us when we tried to “catch” his look. Still today, it’s very hard to make eye contact, or to have a “yes, mommy” when I call his name. That’s probably one of the roots of the problems with have with his behavior, in general.

    Do you happen to know how I could get in touch with a contact mom and have a personal follow-up?
    Thank you!

  18. Maureen

    Hi Rachel! Sorry for the delay in approving and replying to your comment. I’m glad you find the blog helpful. If he withholds eye contact, just keep pulling his chin (gently) up toward you when you call his name. If it’s more the case that he rarely if ever makes eye contact with anyone, please discuss it with your pediatrician.

    To be assigned a contact mom, go here. You will want to email the “Parenting” contact, Roni Hathaway, who happens to be my contact mom. She has always been a wonderful resource and so generous with her time. Good luck!


  19. Rachel Bergeron

    Thank you, Maureen!
    I have been practicing eye contact more frequently with my son for the past week, and honestly, I see a big difference already! I think we might be on the right path for making things better! Thanks a lot.

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