Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2007

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The Down to Earth Dad

Parent Eye Contact
How It Builds Children's Self-Esteem

By Patrick Mitchell

Dads and moms who look lovingly upon their children enhance their self-worth, says pediatrician Ross Campbell, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of Tennessee, College of Medicine.

"Eye contact is one of the most powerful means we have to express our feelings to our children," Campbell says. But men aren't very good at it. "Dads need to make a conscious effort to look at their children in a loving, positive way. Fathers tend to spend their day sort of gazing at nothing, almost looking through things."

Parents often save their most intense, direct eye contact for times when their kids misbehave, Campbell says, making some children fearful when they're young, and angry or resentful when they're older. "Go to your favorite mall and watch the way parents use eye contact. It's really frightening. About the only time you'll find parents making eye contact with their children--and this has been thoroughly researched--is when they're reprimanding them or giving very specific instructions. The rest of the time, most parents don't even bother to give their children eye contact at all. It's almost all negative."

Parents ask him, "How can I help my child's self-esteem?" Positive eye contact is the answer. "Every child has specific emotional needs, and the biggestOeis for receiving unconditional love," Campbell says. "There's a lot of ways to give a child love, and one of the most powerful ways is with eye contact. You can give eye contact in a conditional way, or in a nonconditional way, and it makes a tremendous difference in the heart of the child."

"If the child receives pleasant eye contact only when he or she pleases the parents," Campbell says, "that's conditional love, and that's very damaging to the child. That tells the child she or he isn't worth much in her own right, and she's only valued if she performs correctly. So that child will never develop the self-esteem and a jillion other things that a healthy child needs to have.

"A perfect parent, theoretically, would be making pleasant eye contact with the child all the time, regardless of the child's behavior. That's impossible, of course; no parent is [perfect]. But, the closer we get to it, the better parents we are.

"Even if the child is in the midst of misbehavior, we can still make pleasant eye contact with that child. It's something we can do continuously. Eye contact is a way to keep your child's emotional tank full of unconditional love. The parent looks into the eyes of the child while the child is looking back. It's very simple, but boy is it complex in the child's brain."

Making Contact

How do child-and-family advocates, educators, and practitioners teach the power of positive eye contact?

"Eye contact is easy to do," Campbell says. "You simply have a pleasant look on your face when you're looking at your child, looking into your child's eyes. It's a steady gaze, and a loving, pleasant look on one's face. It's got to become something that's habitual to the parent. The parent can't just do it now and then. The closer we come to doing that all the time--whenever we're around that child, giving as much eye contact as we can--the better. At first, it takes a lot of work and concentration, and then it becomes natural and we just do it all the time. And that's what we want."

But he warns, "You can't just suddenly start making eye contact and expect your older child to be totally comfortable with that." Better to start making positive eye contact early, Campbell says, because if you wait too long, "they just might not accept itOeand you've got a real problem then. How are you going to make them feel your love when they won't even make eye contact with you? Some won't even let you touch them.

"You start very, very gradually, then you gradually increase it as they can tolerate it."

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter! Project™ for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter! ProjectTM for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at Website:

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