Eye Contact

I was leaving a bar once in Brooklyn when a stranger pushed past me towards the street. He turned to apologize but kept apologizing, and tried to take my hand to show he meant it, pressing in towards me as others in the crowd backed away.  People who live in, let’s say, marginalized realities often seem to find me.  They’ll corner me on buses and in cafes, they’ll try to convert me or warn me about conspiracies between pharmaceutical companies and space aliens.  They often say they feel a connection.

This man nudged the guy I was with, jerked his head towards me with a smile and said “watch out for this one”. I half-laughed and asked “why? Am I so dangerous?”.  He smiled.  Nodded.

“I mean it, brother,” he said. “She looks people in the eyes.”

Eye contact is incredibly important in how we relate to one another but it’s hard to explain why. We might know that look in a child’s eye that means they want to be chased by a big monster or play peek-a-boo. We might know another look that means they’re about to key your car, or call you “wanker” as a joke. We might know that a look is a play cue, but can’t describe it more specifically than “you know, that one”.  Many playworkers are convinced that they are somehow more interesting to children than other people, and I think it’s because of the practice we have in giving, receiving and interpreting those looks.

“They find me,” playworkers often say. And it seems true, when I see an infant spot a colleague and stare at them endlessly with very serious eyes. I wonder whether part of what makes us so attractive is simply that we return that initial eye contact. We see children, as people. And we smile to see them.

Lots of adults don’t, of course. I suspect their eyes gloss over children, the way I’ve felt some people’s eyes go past me, without registering. It’s a cold feeling, and I vaguely remember it feeling colder when I was small. Living in a world populated and governed by big people, you depend upon them for your welfare. It is frightening when they don’t seem to notice you, or worse, to notice you and turn away as if they smelt something rotten. On a related note, why are children still a social class that it’s okay to loudly hate?

Just as a look can be a play cue, eye contact can be the most fundamental kind of recognition. It’s the start of everything, a hello returned.

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4 thoughts on “Eye Contact

  1. Mmmm. I was just thinking about this yesterday, and often do… what a great post! I think children tend to be very open to making contact with others (on their terms of course), and that makes many people uncomfortable. I’m not so sure it’s about treating kids as second class citizens. It simply makes the grown person feel vulnerable to really being seen, loved. It’s a defensive shield, well practiced and solidifed over the years. So that you look people in the eye too – what a gift to give albeit one of the most direct – is possibly dangerous. Of course, that perception all in the eye, or mind, of the beholder. Eyes are powerful things. Whoa – and I just had a dream where I was explaining the evolution of eyes in the dining car of a fancy train going somewhere…

  2. When I put my daughter to sleep at night, which is most nights, we have a number of rituals. But one of them is that I say, always in the same tone, “look me in the eyes.” When she does I tell her something. Maybe it’s a short story with a lesson. Maybe it’s to praise her for some special gift she gave me that day. Maybe it’s to ask her to think about something that she did that I would like her to reflect on. It runs the gamut from praise to soft lesson (it’s bedtime after all.) She and I have grown to love those last minutes of the day mindfully looking each other in the eyes. Practiced eye contact doesn’t replace regular eye contact. But somehow I think it helps.

  3. This blog totally hit a nerve with me. On a train full of adults, both children and babies invariably find my eyes and often this leads to silly peek-a-boo type games, pretend scary scowls, silly faces and giggles from me and the kid (my dad is the same). Who knows what my fellow commuters think, and to be honest…who cares, although I have to say, often the laughter and happiness seems to spread and give lots of people that lovely warm glow. People need to slow down and take the time be welcoming and open to the younger members of our society (and everyone else too come to think of it), even if its just locking eyes for a second and offering a smile 🙂 Thank you Morgan for a beautiful blog.

  4. Reblogged this on Play Everything and commented:

    Eye contact is often the first way we connect with one another, how we look beyond a surface gaze and build a relationship. The start (and finish) of so many love stories, a shared look can be the simplest cue to play – even if it’s the hardest to explain.

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