Look Me In the Eye

The impact of technology on children is a source of much controversy and hand wringing these days.  The explanation for aspects of children’s behavior that people are concerned about includes usual and unusual suspects.  A recent article expressed the author’s unhappiness about the fact that children no longer shake hands, and more importantly, are averse to looking one in the eye.  Somehow, this got connected to the idea that young people are spending so much time looking into screens that they were losing the ability to read non-verbal communication and learn other skills necessary for one-on-one interactions.

Whether or not this is generally true is open to discussion and perhaps further investigation.  The question of children’s demeanor with adults, however, may have less to do with technology and more to do with other aspects of child-rearing.  The phrase “look me in the eye,” can ring in one’s ears as the command of authority belonging to an earlier era of child-rearing.

Recently, in a group meeting of parents, questions were raised about dealing with various issues such as sleeping, eating, choosing clothes, and generally managing behavior.  The common theme that could be identified in all the questions was, how do I get my child to listen to me, or more to the point, to do what I want him/her to do?  In the course of the discussion, parents freely gave each other suggestions about things to try, or approaches that had worked or not worked for them.

What emerged clearly to a listener is that parents are struggling with questions of authority.  The wish is, “I want my child to do what I say,” and the question is, “How do I make him or her do that.”  It is the second part that is the source of the problem, eliciting as it does, parental ambivalence.  The ambivalence relates to what is perceived as the need for a method of enforcement.  Many parents wish to use a “rational” approach but when frustrated by children’s lack of compliance move to thoughts of more punitive responses.

The kind of compliance parents wish for was accomplished in an earlier era through fear, stern disapproval with total withdrawal of love, and punishment – including corporal punishment.  Moreover, fear of and respect for authority was widespread, unlike today.  That kind of authority was accorded parents – children were to be seen, not heard.  Parents were supported in that role as it was the generally accepted mode of child-rearing.  For various reasons, this model of child-rearing was rejected, as in turn were other sources of authority.  The question became – and remains – what was to take its place?

The result has been constantly changing theories and ideas about the “right” way to raise children.  The search goes on for an approach that will produce earlier results without entailing earlier, rejected methods.  What to do when both children’s behavior and punitive responses from parents are unacceptable?

The result of this confusion of feelings is that parents are often indecisive in their responses.  At times they throw in the towel letting things go by, at other times they strike out in anger and then feel guilty.  It often seems as though parent and child have changed places, with the child now in the position of authority controlling the situation through his behavior.

The problem is that absent punitive consequences, what we must depend on to bring about desired behavior is education.  We can’t “make” children listen.  Instead, we have to teach children what we expect of them and teaching takes repetition and consistency, time and effort, often in short supply in this age of working parents and harried schedules.  At the same time, parents have to stay in charge – not by acting like the boss but rather by setting expectations with confidence.

We might like children to “do it because I say so” – which has the same tone as “look me in the eye when I talk to you” – but “doing it because I say so” requires first building cooperation and mutual respect.  This is more challenging than being the feared authority figure but also ultimately more rewarding.