Learning to Smile
I learned a long time ago that the
best way to get good pictures of my 3 year old son was to take a lot and keep a
few. Like most little kids, he's usually
on the go and not very interested in posing for a camera. But for several months around his third birthday,
it got even harder than usual. In many
of the pictures from that period, he has an exaggerated, uneven squint, and his
teeth are bared in a pained-looking grimace.
What caught my attention was that
this new facial expression was not simply a product of the camera catching him
mid-blink or distracted. It seemed to be
an intentional mug on his part. After
noticing it a few times, I had an insight into what was going on. He was trying to smile.
What a mystery and a challenge this
must have been for him! Of course, he
knew what a smile was when he saw one in a picture, but how was he to know what
to do when an adult asked him to "smile" on command? How could he have possibly known which little
muscles in his face needed to move to perform a smile in the "right"
way? After all, it's not a natural thing
to do, to fake a smile and hold it for a few seconds. It's actually a complex social skill that
requires attention, fine motor control, and practice.
As I realized what he was trying to
do, I began to look forward to his grimaces.
I appreciated that I was witnessing a very particular developmental task
unfolding in slow motion over these months.
As parents, we all pay attention to the big milestones - walking,
speaking, toilet training, or learning to get dressed. But watching my son learning to smile made me
aware that kids have countless things to master, and much of it occurs outside
of our awareness, even as it's happening right under our noses.
One thing that was particularly
amazing to me was that this process of learning to smile for the camera was
entirely initiated and directed by my son.
With our "take a lot, keep a few" approach to photography, my
wife and I certainly weren't concerned about trying to get him to smile
perfectly for us. But just by being
around people taking pictures, and by looking at pictures, he seemed to
understand that something was expected of him.
He seemed to start with the idea
that smiling involved showing teeth.
What else could account for the gritty grimace and the reflexively
squinted eyes? At one point, posing for
a picture with his teeth bared and eyes scrunched up, someone who didn't know
any better said to him reprovingly, "That's not a nice smile!",
probably thinking that he was intentionally making a silly face. I felt bad for my son. He was doing the best he knew how. In hindsight, I wonder if I should have given
my son some smile coaching. However, I
can honestly say that it just didn't occur to me to help him learn to
smile. For better or worse, this was
something he was going to have to figure out on his own.
It took about 4 months for him to
get it. His squinty grimace has been
gone since November, and he looks better in the pictures we've taken
lately. However, I find that I miss that
funny grin. His attempts at a nice smile
were a visible reminder to me that growing up is not simply a physical process,
but is also filled with countless complex cultural skills that seem mostly to
be learned by osmosis. Speaking is one
of the big ones, but there are lots of little ones too. Taking turns.
Singing along. Family meals. Sitting quietly for story time or church. And of course, learning to smile.