“Mommy, I want you!” Andrew told me during his bedtime last week. I knew it had been a busy day and there had not been much time for joyful connection. As he was lying in bed with the covers almost over his head, I remembered a joy game we used to play when he was little. I asked him if he remembered our fun “eye game” and he shook his head “No.” I demonstrated our nonverbal eye glance game, and within a few moments he caught on and remembered. Soon we were greatly enjoying each other.
When Andrew was about two years old, I observed that he would avoid making eye contact with me. I realized I had been extremely occupied, distracted and stressed with taking care of my husband Chris after a painful back injury while also running the household and tending to our ministry. There hadn’t been nearly enough time for joyful, calm, and meaningful connection. Instead of joy and delight, Andrew was frequently receiving stressed, sharp commands and frustration from me when he failed to follow instructions. I evaluated what was happening and realized I needed to find ways to be intentional about building some joy with Andrew and also to turn down the volume of my intensity.
So I made it a priority to interact with Immanuel, to receive God’s peace amid the stress and overwhelm, and focus more time on appreciation to better keep my brain’s relational circuits on. These steps went a long way to help me lower my intensity and better remain in relational mode.
I knew I still needed to find a creative way to connect with Andrew in joy and rebuild his desire to make eye contact with me. I knew if I could interest him in building joy with me through “Eye Smiles,” we could make a lot of progress. (You can find out more about this fun exercise in the new 4 Habits Of Joy-Filled Marriages book by Chris and Dr. Marcus Warner and see the fun demonstrated in small group videos.)
One day during nap time I thought of a way to engage him by using the “Peek-a-Boo” game—with a twist. Here is what we played. First, Andrew would cover his face with his blanket; then I would look down and break eye contact. Next, we would try to catch each other peeking—with the goal of seeing each other’s eyes. A fun reaction would ensue, and this exchange created a joyful way to engage him and interest him in seeking eye contact with me.
Once we caught each other’s eye, the fun and surprise of it would naturally generate excitement and joy. Soon, we both had a sparkle in our eyes. I would watch for the joy to reach its peak, then I would quickly look away. Next, we would both hide our faces again and prepare to catch the other one looking. The moments of eye contact started very briefly, less than a second, then we would have a break for a few seconds. As we continued the game daily, the length of our joyful eye contact connections began to increase. Within a week, Andrew started making eye contact with me outside of the game for brief moments. Over the weeks and months ahead, we continued our game, and he grew to make eye contact with me whenever we were interacting or talking. At this point our joyful connection became primary, and joy was restored and easily accessible.
Joy is a powerful tool! When children experience being the sparkle in someone’s eyes, it builds the belief, “There is something good about me here.” (1) Joy is only emotion infants will seek on their own. (2) Joy grows our capacity, builds our bonds and creates resilience. (3) Who doesn’t need more joy?
I would encourage you to notice how joy starts and spreads with the people you love when you catch their eyes and convey you are glad to be together. Joy is contagious, so share the good stuff where you can, starting with your family and friends!
(1) Learn more about joy in the book; Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone by Coursey, Khouri, Sutton, and Wilder, Shepherd’s House, Inc. 2013.
(2) The work of Dr. Jim Wilder is excellent for more on joy.
(3) Learn more in the THRIVE-at-Home videos and online course.