The Importance of Seeing People – REALLY Seeing Them

When I realised how much I struggled with eye-contact, about six years-ago, it has been a favourite experiment of mine to see how well other people are doing. The results, of my unmoderated experiment, are not good. Most people seem to have lost the ability to properly hold another’s gaze.

The sad thing is, we are not only telling others that we are scared about life, when we fail to make warm non-intrusive eye-contact, we are also telling our own brains and bodies the same thing. Which puts us into a nasty feedback loop. ( I *know* fascinating stuff; all will be revealed in the tantrum book. I can’t wait!)

The most interesting, for me, is when parents fail to make eye-contact with their children. Those children are always timid and/or violent as a result. They actually have no choice in the matter. Which explains a lot about cultures where eye-contact between superiors and subordinates is not permitted!

Children who are forced to make eye-contact have to become Tough Guys or Mean Girls. They have had to block the sensations of discomfort from intrusive eye-contact. They still feel threatened, but they refuse to accept they are threatened. This is also common amongst sassy, perfectionist, over-achievers.

The boys have been begging me for a while to buy some chocy biscuits for some road workers we have been passing for the last few months. We finally delivered them today. You could see the changes of emotion clearly on the faces of the men, from “What is that stupid b***t doing parking there? to “What the f**k are those kids doing?” to absolute delight when the boys handed them the biscuits. Their backs straightened and they then made almost continuous warm eye-contact with both the boys and I (still in the car).

This is not just any old random act of kindness (which are also very cool). This was us showing them we had seen their hard work, often in difficult conditions, in horrible weather and for long hours. We had seen them.

I use this strategy with the boys if we’re having a bit of a dodgey time: I stop, aim my eyes at their faces (often they can’t make eye-contact to begin with) and just wait. When they can make eye-contact I say something like, “Oh there you are darling. I missed you.” They almost always laugh (stress release) and/or spontaneously hug me (relief). Then we have a very quiet conversation and things go much more smoothly after that.

Eye-contact is the most powerful magic we have access to. Use it wisely. Use it today.

Have you seen me? A comment or smiley face would tell me you have. 🙂



About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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40 Responses to The Importance of Seeing People – REALLY Seeing Them

  1. sarah says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with what you’ve written here. Eye contact is a cultural construct. Many Pacific Island cultures believe making eye contact with someone is offensive and disrespectful in certain situations. We can not judge their behaviour according to or cultural attitudes. I think it’s also an exaggeration to say all children who are raised by parents who don’t make eye contact are timid or violent. I am highly sensitive, I tend to take in all stimuli surrounding me, including the minutae of body language; therefore reducing eye contact is a way of protecting my brain from over-stimulation. Consequentally, I often have to remind myself to make eye contact with my child. However, she is neither timid nor violent. I think it is wonderful to see other people, and I appreciate your viewpoint here. I offer my comment as an opportunity for you to see the subject through my eyes. 🙂

    • Thanks Sarah. And I am going to respectfully disagree about the cultural interpretation in return. Just because there are cultural constraints around eye-contact doesn’t mean it’s not affecting a person’s biology. And yes, highly sensitive people do block eye-contact in order to cope, but that can be deterimental too when used to excess. The fact your daughter isn’t timid or violent shows how well you have managed to not have your sensitivity impact on her life. 🙂

  2. sarah says:

    Sorry for the spelling mistakes, especially this one – We can not judge their behaviour according to *our* cultural attitudes. 🙂

  3. Alex moore says:

    I see you Inspiring Mama! Thanks for all your great posts 🙂

  4. Judy says:

    This is so interesting because eye contact is a very important element in determining autistic characteristics. Since autism is a social disorder and speaks to isolation, it makes sense that autistic people have difficulty with eye contact. Thank you for a wonderful post, as always.

  5. jessie says:

    ever since you posted a little while back about making eye contact when your child wakes up (widen eyes, crinkle, elicit a smile) and i’ve been trying that with my 2yo who tended to tantrum after he woke up (morning & after nap), i noticed that he dodges eye contact initially and i have to coax him into it. i also noticed that he makes eye contact more easily if i crawl into bed with him and snuggle up to him, giving him time to adjust to joining the world.

    i also noticed that he particularly likes “where are you?” (peekaboo) games, and we often play it where he looks away, and then when he makes eye contact i say, “there you are!” your post clarifies why this is so important for him. thanks!

    looking forward to your tantrum book!

    • Thanks Jess,
      I’m so pleased you’re finding some useful information here. By useful, I mean real-life practical! I am writing as fast as I can – book is about a third done. Thanks for your support. 🙂

      • Sounds like your son might have an Owl temperament – very sensitive? Your strategy is perfect for an Owl child. You might also enjoy my first book – Why People Drive You Crazy due out mid-June. 🙂

  6. thirdeyemom says:

    Excellent point! I am pretty friendly and always make eye contact yet I can see how one misinterprets anothers feelings when the eye contact is not reciprocal. Great post!

  7. I really appreciate this post, for a number of reasons:
    Sometimes, parents just don’t realize how threatening direct eye contact can be for little ones. (This prompts my “look at my nose” with preschoolers, so I know they’re paying attention. Asking a child to look an adult in the eye–especially during times of instruction or discipline can be very intrusive.)

    Sometimes, too, I think what accompanies the eye contact is helpful. Looking a person in the eyes with a smile in mine helps to keep that connection easy and light, accepting of that person. Making eye contact with someone when I’m feeling something negative is more likely to make that person turn away.

    My little guy is still struggling with making eye contact with others when speaking to them. After three evaluations with therapists, we’re now headed toward an eye exam which will assess his eye function. We are so wanting to help him, and also see that he’s very warmly welcomed at school by his peers, so his demeanor (I believe) makes up for his challenges with maintaining the friendly gaze…

    Good stuff!

    • That’s great news Hazel, friends are so important. Our Mr Owl is seven and still struggles with some eye-contact, of course it only gets worse the more it is insisted upon. He is relaxed and capable of holding my eyes when he is telling me about something important to him and that is what I use as my measuring stick.
      I agree the what comes with eye-contact is so important. And many adults just don’t get it. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

  8. kyrie says:

    I really struggle with eye contact, and realized recently that my parents had almost no eye contact with me as a child. As abused. Holden themselves, I have a theory that they weren’t able to do this with us because they didn’t get it growing up. Really interesting stuff!

    • Can’t you just see how these patterns end up being carried through generations? It is really interesting stuff and I’m loving all these comments. Thanks so much for sharing your story. 🙂

  9. Tony O says:

    I remember a documentary I watched many years ago that showed the importance of eye and verbal contact with an infant. I can’t remember how old the baby was but well under six months. In the first part, they showed the mother talking animatedly to the infant and the infant responded with eye contact, gestures and sounds which can only be described as delightful.

    In the second part, the mother did not respond in any way to the infant. It was heartbreaking watching the infant try all of it’s previous interactions to get a response from the mother. After several minutes, the infant turned it’s head to the side and just gave up.

    With our children, we’ve worked hard with the shy ones to encourage them to maintain eye contact and to overcome their shyness particularly in social situations and this has worked well for them. We have explained to them the various personality types and validated that as introverts, they aren’t going to naturally engage others, but that from a social perspective, it will gain advantages to them if they learn to go out of their comfort / shy zone and engage others. This approach has worked well for them. One of them has commented on how much happier it has made them because their social interactions are richer.

    • Great strategies Tony, a little consciousness and a lot of emotional support seem to be key. And yes I’ve seen those documentaries too, I just love learning about how people work and every little tit-bit helps fill in another piece of the puzzle. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

      • Oh you’re *that* Tony! Hi! And thanks for reading. 🙂

        • Tony O says:

          “*that* Tony!” yeah, i get that all the time – haha

          Both of us were quite interventionist parents with fairly determined views on what was and wasn’t appropriate in regards to child rearing. We’ve seen other successes (and failures) with less interventionist approaches (not just in regard to eye contact but overall). We are overall happy with the results we’ve had, neither of us could have been non-interventionist parents. At times we have been just gobsmacked at what some parents do / don’t do.

  10. Wow, I never thought about insisting upon eye contact as wrong. We sometimes do the look-at-me when disciplining. We might be stern or angry in our faces when we do it. hmmm On the flip side, our kids are very good at making eye contact when they talk to someone (including adults) and they are respectful and polite. They are very social.

    • It is mind blowing isn’t it? Being somewhat aware of the difference between biology and social construct is really useful, and possibly why you and I chose alternative schooling approaches too. 🙂

  11. I see you.

    And this important post.

    (Thank you.)

  12. Elena says:

    I’ve never struggled with this in familial relationships, but in public situations I am still experimenting. Being from the West Coast of the USA, I grew up surrounding by people who refused to look at you. You could go all the way through the checkout line at the store without anyone ever having noticed you, even the cashier. It is absolutely absurd and I always HATED living like that. Now I live in the South of the USA, where people almost always look at you (if they don’t, I’ll bet they are from somewhere else!), catch your eye and say hello, hold your gaze to have a brief friendly conversation, etc. I think if I ever went back to the West Coast I would have a panic attack, having disappeared off the face of the Earth as far as anyone else was concerned.

    • Eh? People don’t look at you on the West Coast? I’ve heard a bit about the States but not that. Grief. I would have a panic attack too. I *have* to come over and check this out for myself! 🙂

      • Elena says:

        You can walk past 20 people and maybe one will look you in the eye. They pretend they don’t see you. It is oddly threatening, much more so than here where people actually acknowledge your existence. You should come visit me and we’ll go on a North American road trip across the continent to California, stopping every 100 miles or so to walk down the street and count how many people will make eye contact! A scientific vacation of sorts…

        • That seems extreme (the lack of eye-contact not the trip). I’ll have to walk down the street and test it here. And yes, I will have to sell lots of books and pop over! Have to be a Mumma this weekend, so it’s very small steps forward…

  13. Laura Weldon says:

    Fascinating. As a recovering shy and still ridiculously sensitive person I’m familiar with the perils of forced, overlong, or hostile eye contact. I’ve also noticed that my Owl-ish desperation to retreat after long days of lively communication with lots of people outside my family has to do with sensory overload that includes hours of eye contact.

    • It is fascinating, Laura. Owls do struggle with the intensity of eye-contact, and it is because they are very sensitive to everything in their environment. Balancing the brain’s need for connection and the other strong need for calm is *the* balancing act that Owls have to manage. Thanks for your input. Always appreciated. 🙂

  14. As you know, I have a son with autism, and trouble with eye contact comes part-and-parcel with his condition. I encourage eye contact with him but I don’t force it. Usually he doesn’t oblige, but from time to time he will look directly into my eyes, and it’s as if, just for a moment, he is letting me into his world. Those moments are truly spectacular for me. I feel like he is bestowing a great honour on me.


    • I love your approach, Kirsten. And I can well imagine the joy those special moments of contact give you. Thanks for commenting, it’s always good to have your perspective. 🙂

  15. Nicole says:

    Sometimes my daughter is talking to me, and I am listening but busy doing other things (the typical multi tasking mom). I have to remind myself to stop and make eye contact. I then feel like I am in the present with her and the conversation is more intimate and meaningful.

    As for the West Coast (USA) I too live there. And yes, people do not always make eye contact. My husband is from the midwest and thinks it is strange as well.

    • I have noticed less and less eye-contact here over the years too. I shall definitely have to run a little experiment next time I am in town. And yes, it is easy to forget to make eye-contact with our children, we have so much to do – so often.

      • tony o says:

        I can’t say I’ve noticed any difference over the years but I really wasn’t paying attention. Yesterday, after reading your posts, I paid more attention. We had a social breakfast and I got the chance to sit next to a fellow that I’d met once or twice before. I did notice he maintained very good eye contact. So, you’ve got me thinking about it….

        I suspect it could also be tied to one’s personal space. I don’t hold a large amount of personal space compared to some others I know. I recall working closely with a guy who was always uncomfortable with my smaller amount of personal space compared to him. I’d come up to his workstation and he’d always have to move backwards from where I would position myself.

        • I think temperament does have a lot to do with it Tony. Those of us who are naturally more sensitive of our environment can find anything a bit overwhelming, different things for different people, and I would imagine maitaining personal space is one way to keep those overwhelmed feelings at a manageable level. Great that I’ve got you thinking!

  16. I see you too! Thank you for the excellent reminder. I also live on the West Coast (of California, although also a kiwi) and have to say it’s about the same as at home: not great. However I think that’s a reflection of society in general, not geographic location. Most people don’t have time for their neighbours, let alone eye contact with strangers.

    • It’s sad isn’t it? The powerful difference it would make if we all just picked up on this one strategy. Although, we’ve just moved out to Puketapu and all the farmers etc wave as I drive along in the car…lovely, feels like I’m home. 🙂

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