I have more than 13,000 photos on my iPhone camera roll. While I'm not going to scroll through and count them them all one by one, I’m willing to bet that at least 12,000 of those photos are of my son, Oliver. Every single time he laughs or walks or jumps or smiles or points or claps, I cannot resist picking up my phone and taking a picture of him.
There isn’t one photo in that entire stack, however, in which my son is smiling at the camera. Every last one of these photos are candids. That's because I have never told my kid to "smile" for the camera, not even once. And I don't intend to start now.
Every photo I have of him is proof of a moment that happened, not a moment that I staged. I've captured him hitting our dog, petting our dog, throwing the ball for our dog, and kissing our dog. I have never once told him to stand near our dog and put on a happy face for me. I want to use the camera to capture the incredible tiny human life unfolding before me, not to direct it.
I have been told to smile countless times. I have been told by family members and friends to smile for their photos. I have been told by strangers on the street to smile. I have even forced smiles of my own when no one else has asked, just because it seemed like the right thing to do. "Be happy," the world seems to be constantly saying to women. "Look happy. Look happy to please me."
My response to the command has never been to automatically upturn my mouth muscles. Instead, I'll simply tell someone: "I don't want to smile." Then I'll turn my heel and walk away. I don't owe anyone anything, and I won't feign happiness for them. I won't fake anything for anyone. And I don't want to teach my son that he has to, either.
I don't owe anyone anything, and I won't feign happiness for them. I won't fake anything for anyone. And I don't want to teach my son that he has to, either.
I never thought my stance against telling my kid to smile for the camera was particularly unique. But recently, I was hanging out with other youngsters and their parents when someone started passing around a camera. Suddenly, I heard a parent call out, "Smile!" and watched a little girl whip her head around, throw her hands under her chin, and beam at the camera, as if on cue.
She was radiant. She was adorable. And it is completely possible that she actually wanted to smile at the camera. It is completely possible that she is the kind of child who is a natural performer, who genuinely enjoys posing for photos. But seeing her "turn on the magic" at the command of her parents still bothered me.
At that moment, I realized that I had never asked Oliver to smile for a photo, and that I never would. Because a smile should always be natural. It should always be a message from the body, a way of telling us it feels joy. We might fake a lot of things in life, but I don’t want him to ever fake that.
My kid is 2 years old. I have done a good amount of parenting in these past few years, but I have a whole bunch left in front of me. I can’t imagine how hard it’s going to be to console him, guide him, discipline him, manage his schedule, and listen to him. I can't imagine how hard it's going to be to give him everything he will ever need.
I want to use the camera to capture the incredible tiny human life unfolding before me, not to direct it.
But I am going to teach him to let his honest emotions be his guide. I don't want to ever dictate how his face should look. I want to teach him that his true feelings should guide his interactions with the world. I will tell him he can smile for photos – or for others – if he wants to, but that it better be his decision and it better be real — no faking.