How do I teach my kid to smile for pictures?
August 3, 2013 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My child is 7 and when he was younger, had no trouble smiling (or looking serious) for pictures. But now he gives a horrible grimace...thing. He's been at camp all summer and they take pictures of the kids and post them on Flickr. Paging through it is painful. Cute kid, cute kid...oh hey, my kid with a frightening stretched-face chimp-grimace and slitted eyes. Every fucking picture. It looks like a sneer.

We tried to get a photo taken together for the church directory...that was a disaster too. Couldn't use any of them. So it's not just that he needs me there to make him relax. It's become his go-to expression for photos.

I would be fine if he just didn't smile at all, but before I make this a Thing We Fight About, which I don't want to, I thought I would ask some wise Mefites. What possible incentive/encouragement could I give him to stop doing this? I have tried asking him nicely; he doesn't care.
posted by emjaybee to Human Relations (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Ice cream sandwich if he smiles in pictures?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:11 AM on August 3, 2013

Yes,, reward him. If that doesn't work then just deal. He'll grow out of it. Right now he's doing it because it gets a reaction. That'll get old and he'll find other ways to annoy you that aren't recorded for posterity.
posted by greta simone at 7:14 AM on August 3, 2013

It's also possible that he's just trying really hard to smile. Plenty of little kids have cute natural smiles but when they think about it or try to pose for pictures, have a weird grimace thing going on.

I think it's up to the photographer in this case. Try to get some candids of him laughing maybe if you want a photo of him smiling.
posted by inertia at 7:17 AM on August 3, 2013 [15 favorites]

My sister used to do this exact thing, about the same age. Whenever a camera was pointed at her, she'd pull the same face you describe. She grew out of it quickly. Please don't make a big issue out of it. He'll end up doing it more. Just ignore it.

Look on the bright side, in 10 years time you'll have plenty of embarrassment material.
posted by derbs at 7:28 AM on August 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

My kid had a hard time doing a natural smile for pictures at about that age. She wasn't intentionally trying to make a weird face - I just think she couldn't parse how to SMILE on command for the camera. When I tried to talk to her about it ("hey use a natural smile" "be more relaxed") I think what I was saying didn't make any sense to her so she sort of ignored me.

She grew out of it.

You may also be making too big a deal out of it. Just because your kid is making a weird face doesn't mean you can't put a picture in the church directory. He's a kid! They make weird faces!
posted by jeoc at 7:33 AM on August 3, 2013 [14 favorites]

Is it possible some kid has made fun of his teeth or the way he smiles? I stopped smiling for photos around that age because my classmates made fun of my crooked teeth and I was super self conscious about it.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:36 AM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

Maybe have him practice while looking in the mirror a few times?
posted by fancyoats at 7:37 AM on August 3, 2013

The photographer at my school growing up had a couple of big pictures of kids smiling the way he wanted us to smile. Not every kid was compliant, but it helped! He never used the word smile, just said, "Can you make this face?" It's easier for a kid to mirror what he/she sees than to be told to smile, it's too abstract.
posted by juniperesque at 7:45 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Saying "cheese" causes your mouth to form into roughly the shape of a smile. Have them say "cheese" when the picture is taken.
posted by drezdn at 7:52 AM on August 3, 2013

Yes, please just ask him to say cheese then let it go.

I've always been shy for the camera, and not a natural smiler. All the people trying to get me to smile just make me for self conscious and less able to smile. He may be goofing around, or he may be self conscious. In either case, if you down play it he will probably grow out of it. If you make too much of it, it may well get worse (it did for me, and all the people trying to force me to smile made me more self conscious, and I'm still fairly phobic about being photographed.)

Also, formal photos don't necessarily have to be smiling ones, as long as they are not frowning ones. There are some nice neutral expression photos of me from that age that are way better than the forced smile ones.
posted by gudrun at 8:04 AM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

Instead of thinking of it as a disaster or painful, why not reframe this? You're getting a snapshot of your kid's unique personality (and goofy face) at a particular point in time. Someday, you'll have a teenager who refuses to smile for photographs and the same thing will be true, then, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:05 AM on August 3, 2013 [5 favorites]

What gudrun said a hundred times. I am not a natural smiler, and when I do try to smile on demand it come across like a horrible death rictus, or like I'm painfully constipated. Having it pointed out does not help. Never has; probably never will. Because this is An Issue, I avoid having my photo taken whenever possible. Please don't do this to your kid.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:13 AM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

My kid went through a phase like this at around the same age, and I don't think it was intentional -- she knew she had to do something, it felt like the "right" thing to do, but obviously she couldn't see how it looked as it happened. Pointing it out/making a big deal about it only made it worse.

What worked was to say something short, funny and unexpected a second or two before clicking the camera button. Don't do it exactly at the click, because it needs a moment to sink in.
posted by gnomeloaf at 8:39 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

My now-seven-year-old nephew used to do this, and seems to have recently grown out of it. In Nephew's case I think it began as squinting in dread of the camera flash, which he was very sensitive to, and got worse out of overthinking and adults' comments on it. His parents finally gave the other adult family members strict instructions not to comment on it (and especially not to compare it to his younger brother's smiling photos) and his latest photos show a lovely, comfortable smile. I really think making your son practice would only make things worse - self-consciousness is not going to help produce a more natural smile.

Also, I was going through some old family photos a few weeks ago and noticed that Nephew's dad and I often wore similar squinty grimaces in the ones taken when we were very young. So I would agree that some kids just have trouble producing a natural smile for the camera. Hell, I still have trouble smiling naturally in posed photos and do much better if I'm laughing about something with the photographer.
posted by camyram at 8:55 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have worked with kids sports photographers for several years. A lot of kids this age make grimace faces when asked to smile. They think it is funny ESPECIALLY if it annoys their parents and they get attention for it. Some tips we used: don't tell a smiling child to smile, don't plead with them for a nice smile, ask them to say "poopy diaper" or "mom has stinky feet" because it will make them giggle. I mean, seriously, say poopy diaper to yourself. You will smile. We would tell kids to relax their face if they were grimacing. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But, I bet you a dollar your kid will grow out of it really quickly. 7 year olds are super silly and like attention for being "bad." I think the best route is to completely ignore the faces he makes so it isn't something fun he can do to drive you crazy. I know, easier said than done especially if you are paying for the pictures.
posted by rachums at 8:59 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a bunch of brothers, all of whom seem to have gone through a "silly face for the camera" phase at one point or another.

Firstly, yeah, we have tons of pictures of silly kids making silly faces. What of it? Those are some of my favorite pictures to come across as an adult, because we're all grown up now and it's fun to remember a time when we were all so open and expressive.

My mom's strategy at the time, for pictures that needed to look nice (like when we went to the photography studio to have an Official Family Portrait taken) was to say "HOG WITH A RING NOSE" right before the camera clicked. It would either distract everyone slightly, forcing them to relax their faces, or crack everyone up, resulting in natural smiles. You could experiment with different silly/weird/distracting phrases if that specific one doesn't do it for you.

We all still say "HOG WITH A RING NOSE" anytime we take group family photos.
posted by Sara C. at 9:06 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to do this when I was a kid because I didn't know how to smile on command. No joke - I actually did not know how to grin or smile and I thought what I was doing was a smile.

So instead of begging him to smile better or whatever, make him laugh! That was the only way I was able to take normal looking pictures. And eventually, he'll figure it out.
posted by cyml at 9:10 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

My first-grade yearbook is full of kids with odd teeth-baring grimaces. Children don't really know how to smile on cue; they usually pick it up later.

The more you make an issue of this, the more likely it is you'll end up with Calvin's photo shoots. Until he becomes a better poser, prompt him to say something silly (ideally with lots of "ee" sounds) before you snap a photo.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:10 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

Nthing that this is just a phase. When I was about his age my "smile for the camera" smile was always an attempt to imitate the toothy way Snoopy smiled, but I grew out of that within a year.

Yeah, you've got a bunch of weird-smiley-face photos of him now, but think of it as a very rich stockpile of Stuff To Tease Him With By Showing It To His Future Girlfriends.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on August 3, 2013

It's good that you use the word "teach", but, as you seem to realize, traditional "teaching" (model a behavior, correct if it's done wrong) is not the way to go here. It makes students self-conscious, and that's a problem when learning math, let alone something as personal as smiling (or dancing, singing, etc.).

There's a new-ish teaching approach that focuses on noticing. Rather than trying to convey a concept through words or even visual instructions, the teacher just encourages (gently, and non-judgmentally) the student to notice things.

This kind of teaching is discussed in some depth in the book "The Inner Game of Tennis" and, inspired by the first book, "A Soprano on her Head". Either of these will be helpful to you, not just in this situation, but probably in a lot of situations where you want to communicate/teach sensitive concepts. The tennis book describes the author coaching by getting his student to just notice how the student's own swing feels as he's doing it, how high it is in the middle of an arc, etc. The soprano book talks about singers noticing how their own throats, mouths, bodies feel as they are singing.

These are precisely the kinds of things we _can't_ notice when we're busy feeling self conscious and are attending to people's possible impressions of us.

Although those books focus on relatively adult, physical kinds of tasks, I learned a bit more about teaching generally in getting a TESL certificate, and this method was mentioned specifically and favorably by some of my impressively-credentialed instructors.

The genius of it is that it gets people past the incredibly problematic and ubiquitous barrier of tension and embarrassment that really prevents us from being able to learn a lot of important but subtle things.

So, maybe you could just gently get your kid to notice how your face looks when you smile, or play with some mirrors and have him notice how his internal muscle feelings affect his facial positions. Under NO circumstances would you ever say his smile looks "good" or "less good". Just, "how does that feel", "can you make this part of your face move". Maybe in a completely separate session, much later and not necessarily connected, "how do you think it feels to make that face", or "How are you feeling right now? Do you notice how your face feels? Can you do it later?" (do this with all kinds of fun emotions). Never say that something is important, or bad. Compliment effort, not performance (not even good performance).

You must process this through your own knowledge of what's appropriate for your child: I'm not a teacher, and I don't have children. But I have studied singing, felt self-conscious, and learned by noticing (even about my face).

A light touch is crucial for this.
posted by amtho at 9:48 AM on August 3, 2013 [6 favorites]

My four year old used to do this; he was trying to smile but it came out wrong. One day I suggested he try it in front of a mirror so he could see what it looked like. "oh!" he said, genuinely surprised. I suggested that next time somebody took his picture that instead of trying hard to smile he could try just thinking of something funny. Then we had a good time thinking of funny things he could think about. Next time we got out the camera, he furrowed his little brow for a second and then burst into giggles. Problem solved.

Yours is older so it's possible he's pulling a face on purpose, but even so I'd start by approaching it as he's trying to smile but just needs some feedback on how to be more natural about it. It's a skill, and not a simple one (I know plenty of adults who can't do it either...)
posted by ook at 10:08 AM on August 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

I didn't know how to smile as a kid either and my family's strategies were pretty bad. My sister pinched and poked me if I wasn't "smiling properly" and I'm still wary of standing near her for photos. Various extended family told me to smile enough that I just started making faces instead (because I was already smiling as well as I could). For about three years of family photos, there's not one that I'm not sticking out my tongue or grimacing horribly. (So if you ask him to smile, that may be the consequence.)

I recommend the more simple "say cheese" (without extra smile instruction) or saying something funny.
posted by Margalo Epps at 10:43 AM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

If I make my 5 year old do a loud fake laugh it looks like a WONDERFUL happy smile in the picture. Or else fart jokes right before you take the picture.
posted by artychoke at 12:03 PM on August 3, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all. I don't mind waiting out this phase, if that's what it is, but it seemed like it was becoming a problem, which confused me because when he was younger it wasn't. I had some pretty goofy smiles as a kid, but I was more of a people pleaser, and I think for him it may turn into a power thing if I push it (or a neurosis, which I don't want either).

He has a delightful smile when he laughs, but the photos from camp are taken by whatever counselor has the camera, and they have no idea how to do anything but "say cheese," so strategies will only work when me or his dad are around--and we don't take a ton of pictures. So a lot of this is probably a reaction to other adults telling him to give a "nice" smile and maybe that's made it all weird and uncomfortable because he doesn't know how to do that.
posted by emjaybee at 12:05 PM on August 3, 2013

Make him laugh or give him a reason to smile. I noticed a professional photographer use all sorts of goofy voices and tricks to get my little brother to smile, back when he was in kindergarten/first grade. Otherwise, my little brother made a face that he probably thought was a smile (not even close) or this totally pained fake smile (due to my mom's mounting frustration when he wouldn't smile).
posted by marimeko at 3:16 PM on August 3, 2013

emjaybee: "He has a delightful smile when he laughs, but the photos from camp are taken by whatever counselor has the camera, and they have no idea how to do anything but "say cheese," so strategies will only work when me or his dad are around--and we don't take a ton of pictures."

It might help if you start taking more photos — like, bunches of them. If he's more at ease with having candid photos taken, it might help him get past the idea that when the camera comes out it's time to make the portrait-face-grimace.
posted by Lexica at 3:17 PM on August 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, would it be ok if he just didn't try to smile? Plain face?
posted by Ms Vegetable at 4:48 PM on August 3, 2013

This seems like a classic "pick your battles" situation. Unless you need family photos to accompany a run for office and mean people on the internet might make fun of him or the photos make him uncomfortable, I can't see why it would matter much. If you make it too stressful for him (and he seriously may not be able to help it), he may just opt out of any photos and will disappear from your family's photographic documentation for years/ever. So many of us do not like photos of ourselves; how much worse would it be to know that your photographic representation is a disappointment to your parents?
posted by Morrigan at 5:12 PM on August 3, 2013

My cousins had this problem when they were young and my mom got them over it by telling them to think about their new puppy. Got a normal smile out them every time.
posted by teleri025 at 5:50 PM on August 3, 2013

My brother about that age would grimace so hard that tendons would pop out on his neck.

Suggest that he chuckle/laugh/giggle/etc when his picture is being taken - either by thinking of something funny or just by laughing.
posted by bookdragoness at 6:15 PM on August 3, 2013

I work for a school photography company and part of my job is to select the best pose for a kids school portrait. This sort of problem is common. You'll find that the problem is now that he's putting too much effort into the smile and because it's no longer natural, it looks horrible. It might also be due to the fact that a photographer at some point has gone "That's not a smile - show me all your teeth!" which results in "The Grimace". (Yes, people do do this and it's the dumbest thing ever - I've seen hundreds of snarling 5 year old's and it's not pretty).

If "Say cheese!" isn't working for you, I suggest you get your kid to pull a couple of deliberately hideous faces, wait a few seconds and then take a shot, when they're laughing at how stupid it all is. Distraction is key and with luck you'll get back to the unaffected, original smile.

Try not to make a huge deal out of it - you'll end up with a camera-shy kid and you'll get plenty of scowls and sneers when he reaches teenager-hood. Good luck!
posted by ninazer0 at 8:50 PM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another thing to remember is that children don't usually see the value in photographs (useless they're of a dinosaur or something).

To you, photos of your child are essential and possibly the best thing ever. An important record of their growth and youth. To a child, you are stopping them from doing *fun thing* and asking them to perform for you (smile baby! please for the love of god smile!). That weird smile may be all that your child can muster to appease you, while dreaming of all the running around and playing that he plans to do once you release him.

I would go easy on him. Remember, these photos don't have the same worth to him that they do to you. When he gets older perhaps, but not right now.
posted by Shouraku at 11:01 PM on August 3, 2013

Kids go through phases like these when becoming more conscious of the exterior world, and I don't think it's great to prompt self-consciousness during these periods through encouraging him to smile. Even if this is not a phase, smiling for the camera isn't natural for everyone. It's an acquired behavior that needs not to be instilled by the parents for their pleasure and expectation.
posted by snufkin5 at 7:27 AM on August 4, 2013

Response by poster: I don't know which ones to favorite since I'm taking bits and pieces from pretty much all the responses. Here's what I'm doing:

1. Mock-forbidding him to laugh when someone else takes his picture. Because if I tell him not to, he really wants to do it. We'll see if that bears any fruit. At the very least I might get a different and less hideous face.

2. Trying to make him laugh when I take his picture, just not doing the "smile/say cheese" thing.

3. Waiting it out until he's past the self-conscious stage.

4. Reinforcing that not smilling is also ok.

Thanks for the reassurance.
posted by emjaybee at 9:16 AM on August 6, 2013

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