I noticed in conversation with siblings in my care that I had a tendency to make more eye contact with the youngest sibling. It makes sense why that would happen. Younger children typically need more frequent attention to feel secure. They need more help at the table. There's also a desire to make sure they're given space to communicate if it takes them a little longer to get their words out.
In Positive Discipline, a facilitator might call for three or more volunteers for a role play activity in which all of the action happens around just one parent and one child. The extra volunteers sit there, awkwardly not doing anything, until at the end they're asked to describe what they're thinking and feeling. I've been one of these volunteers, and I'll admit, as I sat there pretending to be a sibling at the dinner table, I wanted to be included in the praise my "sibling" received. I would've taken a scolding or punishment just to be included. The lesson I took away was that it's impossible to be in a scene and not be in a scene. Eventually, I can see how a kid might check out and give up on belonging. Or, fortunately, I can see how a little engagement can go a long way.
Having noticed my eye contact disparity while nannying, I started soaking up extra moments of eye gazing with older siblings in any distraction-free (or, let's be real, minimally distracted moments). What if I'm not the first person to look away when our eyes meet? How long will the gaze hold? It's a lovely social experiment, really.
I've held loving gazes with babies and seen how they light up. I stared into my now-partner’s, then-date's eyes for four minutes as part of that 36 Questions to Fall in Love experiment. Extended eye contact was the part I was most nervous about, but I can't say it didn't work!
Why had I overlooked eye gazing as a connection tool for school-aged children and teens?
It feels vulnerable to really look at someone and let them really look at you. I want to show the children in my care that they're inherently worthy of love. I can't communicate that I love them in all of their vulnerability without offering some of my own.
An art lesson from fourth grade sticks with me as one of my clearest memories of that year. The teacher asked us to point out all the lines in a painting. We saw the strokes that marked the limits of the tree trunks and branches, the veins on the leaves, feathers on the birds, a cloud, a flower, we were really nailing it. (And when I say "we," I don't mean me because I was very shy, but I observed.) Just when we were confident we had identified all the lines, the teacher explained that we missed the most important one. There was an invisible line in the painting, a line painted without paint.
The space between two faces looking at each other creates a line connecting both subjects.
The painting would still be pleasant to look at if the birds were looking elsewhere but at each other, but it wouldn't be the same painting. The perceived geometry, the way the shapes are interpreted, comes through their connection.
This is my gentle reminder to look deeply into your child's eyes, whatever their age. Paint lines without using any paint, and fall in love.