When my husband and I were married, we would try to send out annual Christmas cards with a letter or a photo of us and brief updates on our life. The first years, I was so eager to send out Christmas cards of my new little family, but over the years, it became more of a hassle to get it together and mail it out every year.
And then we had kids! I’m not even sure how it happened, but when my son was a few weeks old, my entire family started the tradition of taking pictures together! That included; my parents, two sisters, and their families. We would take individual and whole family pictures, and send these out in our Christmas cards. What I remember most about the first year is that Owen had a huge poop-plosion right when we were trying to leave that resulted in a frantic last minute outfit change!
As the picture illustrates, Owen has never been a huge fan of having pictures taken of him. There was a solid year where he absolutely refused to be in any pictures and would turn away or hide any time we tried. Our daughter is usually more amenable to being photographed, but we never really know how the annual family photo shoot will go. In the 2017 shoot, Ella refused to be in any pictures where I was not holding her, and showed her protest in this picture of my baby sister (Auntie Allie), Owen, and my niece and nephew.
(And yes, that is me trying to prop her up to be in this picture. I was not successful).
Allie moved to Georgia this past January, so we scheduled our family photo shoot for mid-August to coincide with her visit. After my annual tradition of griping about the random colors my mom and sisters choose, and scouring Amazon to find clothes for all of us that meet these requirements (apparently I just own a lot of gray shirts!). I was ready, and hopeful that now the kids are a little older, the photo shoot would be a breeze! We had a deal already set up with the kids in advance: if they smiled in the pictures, we would take them to get ice cream right afterwards! (By the way, this is a good example of how to use reinforcement to get your kids to do things. Copy this one!)
Of all the kids, Owen is especially close to his beloved Auntie Allie, and the photo shoot would be the first time he’s seen here in several months! She had called him earlier that day to tell him the great news that she would see him that afternoon. We arrived at the park for the photo shoot, and most of the family made it on time but Allie got stuck in traffic and ran a little late.
Okay, I feel like I have to interrupt this story now to explain myself. I enjoy teasing my kids. Sometimes I get bored and need some amusement. Both kids have a great sense of humor and can usually tell instantly when I’m kidding. When I tease my kids, it’s usually about something obvious, like answering “shoes and hair!” when they ask what’s for dinner for the fifth time, or once we are loaded in the car to go to the park I’ll say, “Alright, are you guys ready to go grocery shopping?” It’s all in good fun, and I promise I love my kids and am never intentionally mean to them!
Back to the photo shoot. I’m feeling distracted between trying to get Allie’s ETA, keep my kids relatively clean as they run around in the dirt, and concentrating on not falling over in the high heels I rarely wear. Owen innocently asks “Mom, where’s Auntie Allie? She said she was coming!” and me, being the hilarious, fun, kind mom that I am, jokingly responded, “Wait, Auntie Allie is coming? But she lives far away!” Lol, right? I told you I’m hysterical.
But then my phone rang. And I answered it. And I completely forgot about my humorous exchange with my son.
We decided to start with the individual family shoots since Allie was still on her way. Ella was a great sport and all smiles. But to our dismay, Owen completely refused to participate. He wouldn’t smile, he wouldn’t stand with us, and the things that usually work, like firmly reminding him of what is expected and the ice cream that awaited him, had no impact on his stony expression. There were a dozen people standing around watching us and waiting for us to finish up, and Owen was not having any of it.
Remember when I told you to copy of ice cream as reinforcement? We did it right: before the photo shoot even started we gave the kids clear expectations on what they had to do (smile) and what they would earn if they did (ice cream). People often confuse reinforcement with bribery, but they are very different. Reinforcement is a great, effective, and positive tool to use with your children, while bribery is ineffective and does not teach your children the right behavior. Do not use bribery. Seriously don’t. I’m a professional, I have a graduate degree in counseling and behavior analysis, and can write you detailed essays on why you should never use bribery. But I’m also a parent, and at the moment I was a very irritated parent with a lot of people looking at me.
So I bribed him. I had a candy bar in my purse and offered to give him a bite after he smiled. He refused. I had a stern talk with him. Nothing changed. My husband had a stern talk with him. Nada. Nothing was working.
Rewind again. The Halloween costumes had just come out at Costco, and Owen had been talking non-stop about the Black Panther costume he had seen there. He insisted that I would like it because it has purple ribbing and purple is my favorite color. My husband and I told him that he could do some extra chores around the house to earn money to buy the costume (this is another great strategy to use when your kids want things!), but Owen appeared much more interested in talking about the costume than actually wanting to do any chores to earn it. I was excited for him to learn the invaluable lesson that sometimes you have to work hard for the things you want, and you cannot just expect to be handed everything, and was prepared to wait him out and continue to offer him chores to earn the object of his desire. Remember this as we go back to the photo shoot.
It was hot. My hair was getting mussed by the wind, most of my concentration was still focused on balancing precariously in heels, all the other kids were participating obediently, and everyone was looking at me.
My next choice was even worse. Not only did I try bribing him again, but I also completely went back on the great deal we had struck. I told him that if he smiled for the pictures, we would buy him the Black Panther costume. I was desperate, and positive that this would work.
But instead of gleefully pointing and laughing at how quickly I had given in to his poor behavior and smiling to earn his huge prize, Owen started to cry.
And it wasn’t until then that I remembered. Auntie Allie wasn’t there yet. And I had joked that she wasn’t coming and forgot to reassure him that I was only kidding. My heart sank. I felt like an idiot, and a terrible mom for joking about something so important to my son, and then disciplining him for being sad afterwards! After mentally chastising myself, I knelt down (yes, in a dress) and gave him a huge hug. I apologized for joking earlier and assured him that his beloved aunt would be there any minute. He hugged me back, dried his tears, and then gave me a huge smile.
And continued to smile in all the family pictures, especially once Allie arrived.
The rest of the photo shoot went great. Both the kids earned their ice cream, and I only have myself to blame for the trip we had to take to Costco right after… and the forty dollars we had to spend on costumes (Ella was quick to point out that she had smiled so she should get a costume too).
When I look through my holiday cards this year, I’m going to wonder at all the stories and drama and tears behind each perfectly poised family. I hope you enjoy our annual family photo this year. =)