by Kathryn Daniels, speech pathologist, and Michael Hawton, child and family psychologist.
Between the two us, we have had over 60 years of clinical experience in speaking with parents and seeing young children in child health settings.
Recently, we were chatting at the town pool about some changes that we have seen in child-raising over the past 30 years. As we spoke, we both observed that there had been a marked decline in children’s ability to obtain their parents’ attention, because their parents appeared to be more and more focussed on their devices. By contrast, we speculated that in many ways, children are doing the same things they have always done. Infants naturally scour their environment for their parents’ eyes (even if their parents are distracted) and infants quite often use their index-finger to point at things so that they can get their parents’ attention to engage with them. What happens when infants can’t see that reliable, warm friendly face?
Our conversation went on: “But, many parents of young infants appear less attentive when their kids need them to be more present.” We spoke of seeing an increasing number of children who avoided making or holding eye contact with another person and who appeared be developing ‘autistic-looking’ behaviour, although they are not autistic.
The matter of whether or not we should write this piece came to a head when Michael heard his wife recently speak of seeing a young mother with her infant in a suburban park. They were sitting on the grass, the baby was facing outwards on her mother’s lap and the mother was holding a bottle to her infant with one hand while busily scrolling through her smart phone with the other. There appeared to be little interaction between the two and certainly no opportunity for making eye contact.
What’s the problem you may ask?
Young children need literally millions of face-to face interactions with a parent to attach properly. As well as developing their ability to focus and pay attention, one of the main skills infants learn through these frequent face-to-face interactions is the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation means children learn to moderate their reactions to stimuli and can self-soothe when upset.
Already there is some anecdotal evidence that older children find an adult seeking to make eye contact during a conversation makes them feel uncomfortable. Some teenagers have been known to claim that a teacher who was looking directly at a student and trying to make eye contact, was ‘aggressive’ or ‘bullying’.
When kids don’t get these neural pathways stimulated and hard-wired into their brains, they can appear to have ‘autistic looking’ behaviour. Are you a bit worried yet? We all should be because the later problems of avoidant attachment are significant.
With the rise of device usage in young parents lives, we are continually shocked when we are out and about in our local town. Kathryn says that she is seeing an increase in the number of children in her clinical practice, who find it hard to maintain eye contact or even to sustain any gaze.
We are concerned that we may see a rise in the number of children who have trouble relating to others, focussing or concentrating or even accurately interpreting the body language and tone of another’s communication.
To sum up
We need to start ‘gaze’ practice early and that means when our children are infants.
It is timely then that we are reminded of the imperative for our children’s healthy development that they need to get as good a chance as possible to gaze- and, yes, we should put down our phones, turn that baby carrier around and gaze at them as much as possible. You will be rewarded with smiles and giggles.
“Look at mee…Look at mee Kim” was the much-parodied phrase used in the TV series Kath and Kim. Next time you’re with your infant, gaze into their lovely face. The thing is you might be surprised to see that they are already waiting for your attention!
Kathryn Daniels is a speech pathologist based in Bangalow in Northern New South Wales she can be contacted on 0401 538 807.
Michael Hawton is founder of Parentshop, providing education and resources for parents and industry professionals working with children. He has authored two books on child behaviour management: Talk Less Listen More and Engaging Adolescents. You can find more information, including his books and self-paced online parenting courses at https://www.parentshop.com.au/parent-courses/