When your kid meets new people, does he look them in the eye and say hello? What about getting together with Grandma after some time apart: Does he shine his baby blues at her…or look awkwardly off to the side as they chat?
Eye contact is an important social skill that helps us signal our interest in people, that we’re listening and friendly, notes Princeton, NJ–based psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD. If your child usually looks down or off in the distance while with others, he may be perceived as ill mannered—particularly by adults. Unfortunately, lack of eye contact in kids may be a growing phenomenon, and technology may be partly to blame.
Some studies indicate that excessive screen time (think smartphones and older children) may be robbing kids of the chance to develop nonverbal communication skills—the ability to communicate with others without words, and the aptitude for reading important facial emotions. And Dr. Kennedy-Moore, who runs the “Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids” video course series at thegreatcourses.com, isn’t sure tech is completely to blame. “In past years, adults also gave kids a hard time insisting they bury their noses in books,” she reminds.
Whatever the reason for less eye contact, Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests that “seeing eye-to-eye” and a little casual conversation is an important skill for kids to master. Here’s how you can help.
Model bad behavior. Role-play with your child. Let him say hi to you, while you respond by looking off to the side and quietly muttering a greeting. Talk about how that felt to your child. Your kid will see pretty quickly that this approach doesn’t exude friendliness. Explain that this is how others feel when he doesn’t look at them, smile and say a few words.
Offer a script. Kids are often awkward meeting people—even someone they know—because they just don’t know what to say. Help them memorize a routine that includes four simple steps: Look the person in the eye, smile, say hi, and use the person’s name. Show your child how skipping any one of these steps just isn’t as friendly.
Try the eyebrows. If looking someone in the eye is too awkward, Dr. Kennedy-Moore suggests coaching your child to look the person between the eyebrows instead—right at the top of the nose. To the other person, this will appear to be perfect eye contact, but it’s a little easier for shy kids who are just learning how to connect with others.
Turn them into anthropologists. Challenge your child to watch schoolmates and friends for a day. When they see each other for the first time, or walk into a social group, how often do the other kids say hi and look at each other? “They’ll notice right away that other children do it a lot, and they may realize they should try to do the same,” says Dr. Kennedy-Moore.
Try another script with grandparents/adults. Since conversation with adults can be just as tough as the eye contact part, help your child prep ahead of time. Coach him to start by smiling and looking the person in the eyes (or between the eyebrows). Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s formula for talking is “great plus one fact.” Meaning: When Grandpa starts the conversation, it will usually be a question like “How is school going?” The child’s answer can be: “Great (start positive)! In Science, we’re learning about phases of the moon (one fact).” If the question is “How was your weekend?” try “Great! Our soccer team won our match.” And so on.
Be patient. Eye contact can be a very intimate thing, even for adults, reminds Dr. Kennedy-Moore. Hey, that’s why we face forward in an elevator of strangers instead of looking right at them. With a little coaching, though, your child can get comfortable with this key social skill in no time.