How to Get Even Stubborn Children to Smile Authentically for Pictures

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There is nothing that makes me enjoy motherhood more than my child giving me a big, fat, cheesy, whole-face smile. The one where their eyes turn almond shaped and sparkle with pure joy. The smile where you just want to pinch their adorable baby cheeks. Accompany it with their real laugh, and my heart has just melted into a puddle on the floor.

How did I create such a beautiful, happy, child with a smile for days? A smile that is freely shared with me dozens of times each day?If you want great tips for getting kids to smile for the camera that go beyond "Say Cheese" this is a great list!

Some days, my child’s smile is all I need to turn my grumpy, sad self (which I am after a long day of mothering my four little rascals) into a happier version of myself.  Seeing their joy sparks my joy.

It is their smiles that I want to never forget about my kids being little. I never want to forget how I made them smile, how I made them laugh. I don’t want to remember the tantrums, the fits, the disobedience, the talking back, the slammed doors, or the seemingly endless tears. I want to remember the good parts. 

I want to remember that my daughter Alison loves spinning in circles, with her head cocked sideways, because she thinks it’s hilarious and says it tickles her stomach. I want to remember that my son

But, something strange happens when I pull out this giant black thing and cover my face with it. Their smiles seem to vanish, faces hide or are overcome with curiosity or frustration. I’ve pulled out the camera and now my child won’t smile.

Or, if they do smile, they move their head and body at lightning speed so my slow finger misses that split second when they’re looking directly at the camera, are in focus, and still enough for it not to turn out blurry. Or the smile is that fake “You told me to smile, so here’s a smile” fake grin that is nothing like the one you really wanted to capture.

Capturing a toddler’s smile on camera, their true smile, whether for personal memory keeping, social media sharing, back to school pictures, or family photos, can be drama.

Not so much for the child. They don’t really care that much how the picture turns out. But, we as the parents care. A lot.

I rounded up some friends’ advice on what to do when faced with the non-cooperating, won’t-smile-for-the-camera child.

How to Get Kids to Smile for Pictures

Prep Work

If you are getting formal pictures taken (i.e. not just snapping pictures yourself), it can be a life saver to give your kids expectations ahead of time. You can even do things like practice “pretty smiles” in the mirror together, explaining why the overly huge, can-no-longer-see-your-eyes, smiles maybe aren’t so great, nor are the closed-mouth, push the smile into cheeks, smiles.If you want great tips for getting kids to smile for the camera that go beyond "Say Cheese" this is a great list!

My friend Jacey C. said that she likes to feed her kids beans about an hour before a photo session so they’ll have gas. Gas makes everyone laugh. If she really does this, I’m not 100% sure.

My photography friend Jacie F said she loves it when parents bring bubbles, suckers, or balloons to use at the end of a photoshoot to reward kids for good behavior: it allows for some cute candid shots at the end.

For the Photographer

If you are the one trying to get great pictures of kids smiling for the camera, take a lot of pictures in rapid succession, praying one of them will capture that smile. If all else fails, use photoshop or take video instead, doing crazy stuff so he’ll smile, then go back later and screen shot or take stills from the video with their true smile.

If your photographer is a stranger, you may never a get a smile. In this case hire a family friend.

Other great things photographers can do to coerce a smile from a child are:

  • Tell them to hide their face. When you count to three, they need to put their hands down and smile.

  • Instead of yelling “Cheese” have them yell out their favorite princess or superhero.
  • When it’s time for the photo, say “There is [the child’s favorite character or person]!” Their face will pop up with a big smile. (Or so says my Aunt Linda B.)
  • Hold up a favorite toy, book, a flower, for them to look at.
  • Get them talking! Ask about favorite colors, animals, sport, game, etc.
  • Have them close their eyes, count to three, and then open their eyes and smile.
  • Do one nice picture and then one “goon ball” picture. They are happier to provide a nice smile when they can also do a silly picture. Best for ages 12 & under according to Amy R.
  • Pick up a Photographer helper, like this crocheted lion camera lens buddy.
If you want great tips for getting kids to smile for the camera that go beyond "Say Cheese" this is a great list!

Photo by Katie Destry

Behind the Camera

Sometimes getting a child to smile for give the photographer is more about what’s going on behind the camera, behind the photographer.

To help her twins smile for family photo sessions, Katie F. took a helper to every shoot, having the helper stand directly behind the photographer with a noise maker or action figure, or they would simply goof around right above the photographer’s head.

If you’re not in the picture, stand behind the photographer and make your child laugh. I know Jennifer W. said her kids gave their best smiles when she made lewd bodily noises. Go figure.If you want great tips for getting kids to smile for the camera that go beyond "Say Cheese" this is a great list!

Bribery

If you are a fan of bribes and tangible incentives for children, now is the perfect time to exploit them. Some favorite bribes for photo shoots are marshmallows as they don’t stain the outfits or show up in the pictures, as Amber N. informed me.

Several other friends highly recommended Smarties as they go far and don’t make a mess. Plus Angie C.’s kid will do anything for one. Or go for the childhood classic of fruit snacks.

For older kids Angie C says to them, “Look, we are getting family pictures. Afterwards we will take you guys to get the biggest ice cream sundae of your life. Right now you can have all you can eat, but every time I have to tell you to stop acting up, your ice cream gets smaller. So, unless you want to watch everyone else eat ice cream, you better cooperate and smile.”

Make Sure Your Kids’ Smiles are Healthy

Of course, one of the best things you can do, is make sure their teeth are healthy and white for their pictures by establishing good, daily brushing routines using Orajel toothbrushes and toothpaste for kids (even for the babies!). Learn more about the importance of brushing to ensure whenever you’re lucky enough to catch that heart-warming smile, it’ll be a healthy one, one you’ll definitely be proud to show off.

I can’t wait until tomorrow, when I’ll be graced with another amazing smile from my child, with or without the photograph to document it.If you want great tips on how to get children to smile for the camera that go beyond "Say Cheese" this is a great list!


For more great tips on getting kids to smile for the camera check out these great resources:

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