09 January, 2013

Eye contact

I've been rereading "How to Really Love you Child" by D. Ross Campbell. It is encouraging to read that he admits it is clear in research that some children are easier to raise than others. Yay! We knew that, but it is nice to have it confirmed.

We often struggle with parenting one of our kids, particularly. When we had an especially bad patch last year I talked with a wise friend who wondered, out loud, if he wasn't feeling loved. That's a hard thing to hear or think about as a parent. It's taken me till now to think about revisiting the issue. 

One thing has stood out to me so far in the book: eye contact. I don't think we've been doing a good job at giving him good eye contact.

If I take a step back for a minute and consider the context we're living in, it isn't so surprising that we may have gotten slack on eye contact (although, admittedly, we may have not ever been good at it). In Japan (and probably most of Asia), eye contact is done differently. Direct eye contact is generally avoided. In adjusting to the culture, we've moved away from eye contact too.
Holding the gaze of another person is considered rude. The Japanese usually focus on a person’s neck or tie knot.
In Western cultures, we are taught to look people in the eyes at all times; averting the eyes often signifies a lack of sincerity or confidence. In Japan, constant eye contact is considered rude or even aggressive. (From here.)
It is something that Australians notice, though probably not many can put their finger on what makes us appear different. One lady said to us at the end of our home assignment last time,

"When you first came to our church you used to sit over there in the corner and avoid looking at anyone. You've gradually changed to be more Australian in the year and now you're almost normal." She added, "It's a pity you're going back to Japan now!"

This New York author makes some very good points.
In the book The Inscrutable Japanese, by Kagawa Hiroshi (Kodansha Bilingual, 1997), the author notes that if Japanese children, when scolded, look their parents in the eye, they will be further reproached, “Why are you looking at me that way?” In contrast, if an American child looks down or away when chastised, he or she will most likely be ordered to “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Kagawa goes on to speculate about the possible reasons for this difference in behavior, such as Japan’s feudal class system in which commoners could be struck down by samurai for making eye contact.
And also tells some good stories of how odd it is for we Westerns who've adjusted somewhat to living in Japan when we return home, and how odd we must look to the "natives" there:
While I was on vacation in the US, however, I noticed right away that people were looking directly at me. I transferred planes in Detroit airport, and I cannot tell you how many times I mistakenly thought that passersby were about to speak to me. It was truly strange to experience so many people making direct eye contact like that—and I must have looked even stranger, being that I kept smiling, nodding, and even bowing to them! I was a bit dazed from the flight, having not been able to sleep at all on the way over, and when I almost bumped into an enormous man exiting the men’s room, I bowed, looked at the ground, and said, “sumimasen.” He looked at me as if I were insane! Rightly so, I suppose.  
But back to our parenting. I've only been consciously seeking eye contact for the last two days with my boys, and especially the most challenging-to-parent one. We'll see if it makes a lasting impact on his behaviour. I know that that isn't the only thing I need to do to help him feel my love, but it is one small thing that isn't really that hard to do, if I think about it. Just being conscious of it is a big step forward, especially for parents who've tried our best to fit into Japanese society.

It does leave me with one question, though. If eye contact is so important to showing love to Western kids, is that a universal rule? How do Asian parents show their kids they love them?


Anonymous said...

Japanese spell love T-I-M-E. If it took a long time to make their child's obento or yochien bags, you know the parent really loved them. "時間がかかりました” is more of a boast than complaint, I think.

Evangeline said...

That was my comment, above. It is just my impression, so I may be wrong. I'd like to hear what Japanese parents think. I do remember attending a parents' meeting at shogakko where some expert person was encouraging to parents to foster communication with their children by making good eye contact.

Ken Rolph said...

That parental eye contact can be manipulative, as parodied in the Kath and Kim "look at moy" sketches.

I was party to a discussion among a diverse group about living in different cultures. Many of the Asians were wary of the Australian habit of small everyday thank yous. They thought it was unnecessary. It seems that in different cultures different things are taken as established. Perhaps loving parents is something that it taken for granted as an established fact that doesn't have to be demonstrated.

Wendy said...

One of Ross Campbell's points is that rarely does a parent not love their kids, but the problem really lies in the the communication of that love. I wonder if Japanese kids actually feel loved when their parents spend lots of time making their packed kindy lunches?

Perhaps you're right Ken. But again the author's contention is that kids need to know that they're loved, otherwise they tend to behave badly, especially as teenagers. Do Japanese kids know that they're loved?

Georgia said...

Thanks Wendy for posting this! I had just this week come to the concious realization that I wasn't making eye contact with certain people and wondered if it had to do with how I felt about the person. Now I think that I've been guilty all along since my return in the autumn and that is why I've gotten some odd reactions in public situations!