I was listening to a talk show host interview a mom about her new book on parenting. This mom has three grown children, one of whom was recently killed in Afghanistan serving as a Navy Seal. She attributed the success of her children to the fact that she raised them to be “strong and independent.”

I was not surprised by her comment.

When I ask parents what they want their children to look like by the time they enter early adulthood independence is usually at the top of the list.

But I would argue that the belief that strength comes from “independence” is an illusion. Strength comes from connection. A member of any special forces unit would tell you that their strength comes from the fierce loyalty and strong connections that they have to one another, to themselves and to their country. There is a camaraderie among these men and women who share similar goals and values. They have the shared experience of enduring some of the most rigorous training in the world and they rely on each other for their very survival.

Not only are they connected as a team but these elite individuals are connected to themselves. They know who they are and are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They have no illusions as to the limits of their strength. To do so would be detrimental to their own survival and that of their unit. And they are willing to lay their life down for our country because of a sense of connection to something bigger than themselves and the values that our country holds.

So it is with all of us. Our strength comes in connection—not independence. In fact, we could argue that the root of both physical and mental illness is disconnection in the body and mind. Our primary goal as a parent is to grow strong connections with our children that will endure the ups and downs of childhood and adolescence. Strong and resilient children are those who are connected to themselves, family, God and the world around them.

A key ingredient in building strong connections is something very simple yet so powerful–eye contact.

This past week I was with a teacher who shared with me the change that came about in her classroom when she determined to focus on eye contact. She made a list of all the children in her room and kept a tally throughout the day as to how many times she made eye contact with each boy and girl. She realized that there were some with whom she made no eye contact at all. She set out to change that. She purposefully made it a point to look each child in the eye throughout the day and she reported that the entire dynamic of her classroom began to change. Children began to talk more. Behavior challenges lessened. And an increased sense of calm pervaded the room.

Why is eye contact so important?

It is often said that the eyes are the window of the soul. Our children see reflected in our eyes how we feel about them. When I pause the TV, look up from my phone or stop what I’m doing and look my child in the eye I give him the gift of presence. This sends the message that “you are a priority…you are more important than my phone, my own pleasure or this task that I’m doing at the moment.”

When my child asks to spend the night at a friend’s house and I never look up from what I’m doing, I communicate a sense of indifference. You don’t really matter and I’m not really concerned with what you do. When I pick my child up at the end of the day from the childcare center and never put my phone down to greet and hug them, I communicate to my child that your absence is meaningless to me and our reunion brings me no joy.

Relationships and strong connections are forged in small moments throughout the day. In these seemingly ordinary interactions we are sending powerful messages to our children about who they are and their place in our lives. Pre-occupation is the enemy of connection. Determine to put the phone down, pause the TV, close the computer and look your child in the eye. Eat dinner together, look each other in the eye and talk about your day. Look your child or your teenager in the eye when you send them off to school with the memory of an affectionate good bye. Look your kids in the eye when you say, “Good night” and send them off to bed with the gift of presence. These small moments grow strong connections that will endure the temper tantrums of toddlerhood, the insecurities of childhood and the angst of the teenaged years.

In Psalm 17:8 the Psalmist asks God to keep him as “the apple of your eye.” Make eye contact and connect with your child. Show him that he is the apple of your eye.
 



 

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