The No-Eye-Contact Parenting Strategy

by Jennifer Craven
parenting and playtime
Kontrec / iStock

I recently found myself partaking in what has become the highlight of my social life: a child’s birthday party. While some parents loathe these events, I am thrilled at the idea of a house full of kids—mainly family members—to keep my little ones entertained. Yes, it’s a three-hour window where the kids can run free in a safe, familiar environment, thereby leaving me alone to engage in an adult conversation for the first time in days.

So you can understand my complete annoyance when what did I hear as I casually sipped rum-spiked punch with my friends around the kitchen island? “Mama! Mama!” The little voice from below was accompanied by tiny hands pawing at my pant leg.

Much to the horror of the sanctimommies in the room, I continued my conversation without glancing down. Because I’m an atrocious, unloving mother? Certainly not. The reason is because I know the cardinal rule of getting your kids to play independently: Never make eye contact.

I should clarify that the no-eye-contact rule doesn’t apply to every situation. Of course, I would have given my child attention, picked her up, and soothed her if she were hurt, hungry or tired.

But the scenario in most cases is this: Child is playing contently. Child looks up for the briefest of moments and catches a glimpse of you. Child thinks, Hey, there’s my Mom, sitting over there reading a magazine. She looks bored. I better pull her hair. Or this: Child is playing contently. You think it’s so sweet that when child looks up and meets your eye, you give her a little smile. Child immediately drops what she’s doing and whines dramatically until you pick her up. Case in point: Never make eye contact.

Here are a few tips for navigating these avoidable occurrences:

1. Stay Busy

Kids seem to play better when the parent is preoccupied with something. So even though you despise cleaning, grab that Swiffer and get to work. Chances are your kids will all of a sudden start playing with a toy they haven’t touched in eight months, and you’ll get a clean house. It’s a win-win. It’s also a twisted irony because all you want to do is sit down and relax because you’re so tired from parenting, yet staying active and moving is what will make parenting easier.

2. Don’t Enter a Room Where Children Are Happily Playing

You’ve finished emptying the dishwasher, and your kids are entertaining themselves nicely in the living room. There’s nothing else for you to do in the kitchen, but don’t you dare saunter into range of the kids—once you’re within view, the civility will stop. So you’re officially “stuck” in the kitchen. But, hey, there are worse places to be stuck. Do like I did just yesterday: Grab a box of Cheez-Its and plop yourself on the floor. I got a whopping 17 minutes of freedom sitting on that cold, hard tile, and I loved every minute of it.

3. Hide From Your Kids

Yes, I said it. Hide. In my experience, 99 percent of sibling fighting, boredom, or any other issue can be resolved without my intervention. Whether you dodge behind the counter in your kitchen or simply duck behind another person when you’re at a crowded place (like the aforementioned birthday party), don’t be ashamed. Just be sure to explain what you’re doing to the kind, older lady as you bury your face in the back of her sweater: “Don’t mind me, I’m just hiding from my kid.”

You’re probably wondering what happened at the birthday party when I didn’t make eye contact with my daughter? In approximately six seconds she realized she was perfectly fine and Mama wasn’t going anywhere, and she toddled her happy little self away to play with the other kids.

The no-eye-contact strategy wins again. Now, back to the punch.