An old-school communication skill every child needs to master.
Eye contact is a critical social skill and a sign of self-confidence. But as we all know, teaching kids to develop good eye contact isn’t always easy. Heck, even many adults struggle with eye contact. And in an era where it is easy to duck behind phones and tablets to avoid social interactions, eye contact is a skill that can easily slip under our radar.
Why eye contact matters. Eye contact helps us form friendships. In day-to-day interaction, it signals polite respect for the other person and shows that you are interested, engaged and listening.
Eye contact can also help keep us safe. People are less likely to see you as vulnerable if you seem attuned to your surroundings and not buried in your phone, lost in space or staring at the ground.
Here’s how to help your child develop stronger eye contact skills:
Ask for eye contact. Look at your child when he is speaking to you and ask that he do the same with you.
Role model. If a peer or adult addresses your child, give her a minute to respond. If she doesn’t, you might gently nudge your child and quietly say, “Mr. Johnson said hi. Can you say hi back?” If you are still met with downcast eyes, ignore your child’s behavior and role model a response. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, your child is watching and listening to how you handle social interactions.
Avoid labels. As tempting as it is, try not to make excuses for your child like, “Oh, he’s just shy.” This label has a way of reinforcing itself, making it harder to help your child develop stronger skills.
Role play when you get home. Pretend to be a peer or adult and practice ways your child can respond politely and appropriately.
Get social. Take advantage of social situations to build skills. At family gatherings, encourage your child to sit with a relative and chat. Practice conversation ideas beforehand to give your child confidence. What are questions she’s always wanted to ask that person?
Reinforce positive exchanges through praise. “I really liked how you looked at Billy when he said hello to you today.” or “Good job looking at Mr. Jackson and saying thank you when he congratulated you on that great hit in baseball today.”
Acknowledge social skills you admire in others. “Wow, I was really impressed with how Jenny speaks so clearly and looked at me when she spoke to me. What do you think of Jenny?”
Practice at restaurants. Before the server arrives, discuss what your child would like to order and then have him order it himself. Tell him to speak clearly and look up at the server while ordering. Even preschoolers can politely request a glass of milk or juice.
Are you a new parent? Parents who meet their baby’s gaze and speak to them are already nurturing eye contact and conversation skills. As children begin developing their conversation skills, look at them when they speak. Ask questions. By doing this, your child will grow more confident in her ability to express herself.
Developing eye contact won’t happen over night. Patiently practice over and over again and slowly your child will start to incorporate the skills you’ve been teaching.