The eyes have it: eye contact from tweens is important

The eyes have it: eye contact from tweens is important
Photo by imagerymajestic for FreeDigitalImages.net

Eye contact is an essential part of communication, but making eye contact with others is sometimes easier than it sounds.  That is particularly true of tweens, who often find it hard to make eye contact. Eye contact is important, and tweens need to learn why. Children need to make a concerted effort to look people in the eye when speaking with them, and below are tips for helping them do so.

Why eye contact is difficult for tweens

Tweens are notoriously bad at making eye contact. There are a variety of reasons that they engage in gaze aversion, including their self-consciousness and social awkwardness or that they are easily intimidated. That tweens are glued to their phones doesn't help the situation.

My tween's lack of eye contact struck me recently when we were at a restaurant and she would respond to questions from the waitress with a "Yes, please" or "No, thank you" but while staring at her water glass or looking down at the table. I tried to explain to her that while using polite words is good, more is required, especially as a tween. She's old enough to know better. Better behavior, starting with eye contact, is needed for her to truly convey politeness.

Why eye contact is important

  • Politeness

In our culture, eye contact is a sign of politeness. When I noticed my kid was staring at a menu and not a person, we talked about how eye contact is important, including that it is a sign of respect.

  • Awareness of and empathy

Other cultures emphasize eye contact even more than we do in the United States, as Pamela Druckerman explained in her book Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Eye contact helps children literally see that they are not the only ones in the world.

The French believe that when children make eye contact and exchange in a straightforward and polite encounter, they see that they are not the only ones with feelings and needs.

Behavior such as eye contact "convey[s] to other people that they matter and are worthy of respect" and that such courtesy is "all but entirely absent from our parenting culture today," said Judith Warner in her Time article "Why American Kids are Brats."

  • Eye contact conveys confidence

Stanford football coach David Shaw, who has a 23-4 record in his first two seasons, explained that vocabulary and eye contact are characteristics that he and his staff look for in recruits.

"[We seek] a young man that has the confidence to stand up in front of you and express himself as opposed to what a lot of young kids do today – they don't give you eye contact, they kind of mumble when they talk to adults," said Stanford football coach David Shaw.

"You walk around and talk to our kids, they look you in the eye," Shaw continued. "And we play that way. We are going to play right at you, in your face, 'Here is who we are, here is how we play.' There is a one-to-one correlation. There is no doubt about it to me. The inability to be intimidated by a person or a situation is something that is significant."

As Coach Shaw's statement shows, society favors the confident. Conversely, shy kids have a harder time. Moreover, shyness and lack of eye contact is often misconstrued as aloofness or snobbiness.

How to help kids make eye contact

  • Reason with your tween. They may not like the logical reasons for any behavior, but they can comprehend them.

In addition to the reasons above, your tween will need to make eye contact well into the future, be it the college newspaper meeting or in the workplace. It may be okay to look at the ground and not say anything at age 3, but that behavior is disrespectful at 8. Tweens can understand this. Ask him/her who a teacher will take most seriously - the student who looks at the floor when asking a question or requesting help, or the one who looks the teacher straight in the eye?

  • Empathize, but also encourage and set expectations

Tell your tween that you understand that eye contact is not always easy, and that it is sometimes a bit uncomfortable for them. My tween sometimes feels awkward or unconfident, and I want her to know that I do understand those feelings. But this is a good example of sometimes you fake it until you make it, or that acting confident can in fact help you become so.  Also, this is an example of what Dr. Deborah Gilboa says: How you act is more important than how you feel. Tweens often need gentle nudges (or sometimes large pushes) when it comes to polite behavior, despite their overwhelming emotions. Encourage them to be better, and also make your expectations clear.

  • Practice and praise

Help your tween take baby steps (Anyone else a fan of the movie "What About Bob?") and praise his/her improvement. Making eye contact regularly isn't as easy as flipping a switch. It takes work and practice before it becomes a habit. Help your tween by practicing one on one with them. Yes, they will roll their eyes. Do it anyway. Start with small encounters like handling a purchase at Target. Reassure your tween that the more he/she makes eye contact with others, the easier it will become.  Find more tips on supporting a shy tween or teen here.

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Filed under: Parenting

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