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Looking in the eyes, looking on the heart

By Catherine Pavia


So far in my short journey into parenthood, I have struggled in particular with one of my children. Although this child is extremely bright and cheerful, I don’t understand many of his/her (used to protect anonymity!) choices, I don’t “get” his/her motivations or reactions. Because of this, I’m often frustrated with this child. It seems life for this child is made up of me disciplining him/her over and over again for the same offenses.

Thankfully, last week I received some much-needed perspective on my relationship with this child, thanks to my third grader’s homework. Every school night, my third grader brings home a reading sheet with four quadrants, each containing a list of interesting words and phrases that he’s required to read to me because the next day he’ll have to read them to his teacher. When he reads the words to his teacher, she has him stop after each phrase in the first quadrant and look directly at her eyes for 3 seconds before reading the next word. So, every evening when he reads the words to me, he does the same: after each phrase or word in the first quadrant, he looks into my eyes while counting to three.

At first I resisted this looking-into-my-eyes aspect of the homework. I’m a get-it-done kind of girl. Just read the words, enough with the soul-gazing. But it’s now grown on me. A lot. I’ve realized that I don’t look at my children very often. I mean, sure, I look to make sure that their hair isn’t sticking up, that they’re wearing tennis shoes on P.E. day, and that they’re doing the chores that I asked them to do. My looking is always for a purpose, an evaluative purpose.

But when I look into my third grader’s eyes in the brief seconds after he reads, I don’t look for something. I just look. I think this might be what the Lord told Samuel to do when he said, “look not on the outward appearance, for the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). I have known this scripture since my seminary days. But I don’t know that I’ve really been doing it, even when I think I have. For example, in my struggling to understand that one child, I thought I had been looking on the heart as I’ve been trying to see and understand motivations, reactions, and so on. But even that has been for evaluative purposes. As I look into my son’s clear blue eyes during reading homework, I see love. I see a child who I love. I see a child God loves. Will this change my other child’s actions? No, but I hope this new perspective helps me in my ability to change my reactions.

Have you had experiences looking “on the heart” that have helped you in your life or in your relationships? How have you changed your perspective on others?
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About Catherine Pavia

(Prose Board) has worked as a cherry sorter, file girl, piano teacher, writer, editor, and college professor. She currently works full-time as the art director, events planner, chauffeur, and referee for her four children. She spends a good deal of her time running—be it down the supermarket aisle after an escaped child, around the living room in a heated game of flag football, or on early-morning runs/therapy sessions with her neighborhood friends. She earned her BA and MA in English from BYU and her PhD in English from UMass Amherst.

13 thoughts on “Looking in the eyes, looking on the heart”

  1. Very interesting story and conclusions! It reminds me of the line I have liked so much in "Avatar", "I see you."

    I wonder what the childs "sees" or is supposed to see in the exercise..??

    And what does the teacher see and what is the teacher's purpose in this exercise?

    Very interesting…

  2. Amen, amen.
    A wise mother once taught me that living with her children is like living in a small orchard. She is surrounded by growing trees. But her job as the steward of the orchard is not to help them to each grow up into the same apple trees and produce the same apples, but to help the orange sapling grow up into a healthy orange tree, the cherry sapling grow up into a healthy cherry tree, etc. etc. And that required that she truly see them and who they are.

    Yes! to that eye contact, heart contact, stopping to see and understand.

    And it is when a child feels loved and understood, or that at least the parent is trying to compassionately understand, that he or she and we are fully open to guidance and teaching and the connection between us sings. Those times are sweet.

  3. When our daughter was three, I was miserable. She drove me crazy! (See? Her fault!) People would say, "Well, that's three. Just wait till she's 14." And I would think, "You don't get it. She's not gonna live to see FOUR, let alone 14."

    Then one day the Spirit prompted me to have a Mommy-Daughter date with our three-year-old. She chose to go get an ice cream cone and go to Temple Square. (Easy date!)

    There–in the North Visitors' Center–our three-year-old taught me all about Jesus. Tears filled my eyes as the Holy Ghost confirmed to me that this beautiful, brilliant, valiant, vibrant child had been entrusted to me by her true Father. The love and the light poured over me that evening, and I have never forgotten the blessing of the sweet tender mercy.

    Turns out it wasn't her fault at all…

  4. What a beautiful post. My children are all grown but as I'm reading this I'm thinking I should look more into the eyes of people I come into contact each day. Really look and listen to them.

    But I am wondering why his teacher wants him to do this. Is it just to get them to slow down and think?

  5. Jocelyn, I love the orchard analogy.

    Aundrea, thank you for sharing your experience. I love your description of the connection between parent and child as "singing."

    Miskky and Grandma Honey, the teacher told me that in 16 years of teaching, she thinks she'll never forget a child because of this exercise. So I think it's her way of connecting with each student individually.

  6. Thanks for a sweet post, Catherine. My husband is really excited about a book reviewed on NPR about kissing. It referenced all kinds of studies about the power of looking someone in the eye (you'll notice how often they do that in the temple). One study paired up a bunch of single people and instructed the to look each other in the eyes while talking. Nearly every participant said they felt a strong connection to the other person and several of them ended up getting married! Eye contact– it's powerful stuff.

  7. Oh, this sounds like my third grade son! Who, btw, is perfect at school or wherever I am not. I love taking time to look into his eyes and seeing the sweet boy I love so much!

    We have found one reason why he gives us so much grief…he is bored. We have to find things for him to do or agree to do, to keep him busy and out of trouble. He wants to know everything and do everything. Yet he struggles to read and write.

    When my 12 year old was a baby, fresh from the NICU or even in the NICU, had penetrating eyes. In fact, the first time I saw him, as they were taking him to the local Children's Hospital, I noticed his eyes. There was someone important and special in that deformed tiny body. All the nurses and Doctors were always amazed and sometimes upset, over his penetrating eyes. They felt he was 'too nosey!" We often heard that in elevators…one woman got off because she was so uncomfortable with him starting into her eyes. Even those with Sunglasses. Eyes are the windows to the soul.

    I want my boys to know they are loved, wanted and special. I asked them if I had a favorite child….they all agreed they each where. I was so happy to hear they did not feel one was singled out over another. My parents had/have favorites and I really disliked that and didn't want it for my boys.

  8. Pauses – particularly when looking into my sons' eyes – are powerful.

    Today my youngest son broke one of my few, and very cherished, ornaments. In my head I was saying "It's only a thing, that's all" while I picked up pieces and tried not to cry. Then I felt his arms wrap around my waist as he said "I'm sorry I broke your ornament Mum". If I hadn't looked into his eyes I wouldn't have seen the tears welling there, and seen how heartfelt his sadness was at my sadness.

    I've been thinking about this post all day – thank you.

  9. I love to look into my children's eyes.

    Like Grandma Honey (#4), I am going to try to look into the eyes of those who are not my family members…not just to have eye contact, but to really, consciously look in there for a couple of seconds, spirit to spirit.

    I'm not sure I ever take time to do that…not as a matter of course, at least.


  10. I had a child much like yours with similar challenges and responses. I wish I had spent more time on my knees pleading for understanding and for acceptance and for the ability to set my ego aside. We are friends now and really like each other. But the time in between was not pleasant.

  11. I have that "one child" also. I read the book "Parenting your spirited child" and there was an exercise in there that helped me so much. I wrote down all the qualities of this child that drove me crazy (ashamed to admit it was a long list) and then turn those words into positive qualities. Stubborn became persistent, loud became enthusiastic, crazy became fun. It helped change my perspective about him. I also had a stake president who gave a talk about difficult children and he said, "If you have one of these children, just know God has entrusted you with a child who can change the world." That statement changed my life as a Mom. Also Elder Robbins talk from April 2011 conference was a great one about parenting! Good luck and pray hard I know exactly where you are coming from!


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