Summer Family Photos: The Good, The Bad, The Truth

If I have to cajole my kids into a hundred fake smiles and a thousand photos that depict a completely unrealistic amount of family fun this summer, by God, I will do it. I will.

IMG_0910-003I am not above bribery, and I am not above inducing guilt. Some of our best family photos have come from a few well-placed jelly beans or a gentle reminder that I’m under no obligation to take them to the ______ (park, zoo, pool, bathroom… you pick) if they won’t reciprocate with a couple counterfeit grins.

I do believe that the smile to the right, in fact — one of my favorite pictures of that punky kid — was the result of promising him a burger for dinner with a side of chicken. For a carnivore, it was a dream come true. And a win/win; meat for him, a sparkle in the eye for me. I regret that bribe zero percent.

But I’m not doing any of this false framing for the purpose of Fakebooking.

Nope. That’s not it at all.

Quite frankly — and I do believe I’ve established a level of trust here where you’ll believe me when I say this — I don’t have any desire for you to think my family and I are perfect. Absolutely none. Honestly, I can’t take the pressure of perfection because I can’t find the time to maintain the required facade.

So why the manufactured family photo plan? Simple:

I stage happy photos so I can remember our happy family.

I mean, sure; we’re not all happy every minute. I have plenty of photos of that. And I think I can speak for all seven of us when I say we’re a family full of well-meaning, irritating people who excel at making each other crazy. We’re loud and messy, weird and kind, selfish, generous, wonky, painful people who love each other.

Thing is, while candid pictures capture the chaos well, they rarely catch the sweet and the sacred. And I’m no professional photographer, reaching for my camera to snap the most magical memories. I’m more likely at any given moment to be reaching for some kid’s discarded, threadbare pants to sop up the gallon of milk that just tumbled to the floor.

So we recreate the magical moments for film.


And that’s OK.

It’s like a sacrament. An outward symbol of an inward reality.

We’re just telling a deeper truth.


I’m also a fan, though, of the whole truth. So here’s the other side:

It’s rainy in Oregon this first week of summer and we all have tiny, little colds.

We’re the kind of sick that’s not really sick sick, but is annoying and persistent and makes us all feel generally blah.

photo 3 (44)photo 4 (27)

My middle kid, in particular, is extremely angry that we haven’t been able to stop her nose from running. She came into our bedroom at 11:00pm and yelled, “IT WON’T STOP. WHY WON’T IT STOP?! I CAN’T SLEEP and ALDHGAIUHREWKFLDS!” That last, of course, being some sort of nonsensical depiction of all-consuming rage and so perfectly imitating my own feelings about sleeplessness that my loving husband wondered aloud if she’d learned that expression from me.

The last several nights, I abdicated responsibility for dinner; last I knew, there was candy in the candy basket, a few old bananas in a bowl on the sideboard, and a remnant of cheese in the fridge, so it all worked out.

During the days, we’re snuggling down, under our well-loved, somewhat gross, shredded blankets to watch unlimited television.

That’s right. It’s the first week of summer, and we’re celebrating with a truly unreasonable amount of screens.

So the next time you see fun staged summer photos of laughing kids frolicking in the sunshine, you can remember that’s part of the truth. A deeper truth, even. But not the whole thing.


What’s your summer photo strategy?
Do you stage them?
Is bribery involved?
Or is it just me?


Family photo credits to Joel Bock Photography


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16 responses to “Summer Family Photos: The Good, The Bad, The Truth”

  1. We have five kids as well (ages 3 to 15) so getting them all in a family picture (or even just the kids!) is akin to trying to bathe five cats. There is always one picking their nose, one crying, one distracted by Lord-knows-what and the others yelling at the offenders to stop so they can collect on our bribe :). I take them anyway – boogers, tears and all….and they are my favs!

  2. We recently went to the beach with some college friends and our kids–6 boys, ages 2 to 13–and wanted to get a decent (i.e. everyone looking at the camera) picture of them for the college magazine. So there we are, the 6 of us trying to get the 6 of them–at least half of whom have fairly significant attention issues–to look at the camera and look half-way presentable. We are yelling and doing all of the crazy things that parents do to get kids to smile, and this woman walks up to tell us that we (parents) are hysterical, and that she is a professional photographer and wishes she had her camera to take a picture of us! We should have thought of bribing them with something!

  3. Ours are totally staged and all my sons smiles are induced by me acting like a fool. Whenever I get compliments on my son’s great photo smile, I wish I could turn the camera around and show everyone my sweaty, bedraggled self, jumping up and down while doing the chicken dance– just to eek out one measly little smile. It’s a lot of work, but so worth it!

  4. We always took fall family photos — it didn’t take up long to realize it would only take about 5 minutes to do if we’d just listen to my mom, but that didn’t mean we’d listen. It was more fun to get her all riled up. As we got older it became “shut up and smile” and when we finally all smiled with our eyes open at the same time it was over. Occasionally if one of us was consistently being stupid then we were the one looking like an idiot when she sent out family photos…we eventually learned our lesson!

  5. Never be afraid to admit to bribes. A bribe is just the realistic word for “rewarding positive behavior” and there’s not a single child rearing book out there that has not encouraged us to do this. And a parent that scoffs at using bribes for children, I feel, is not being honest with themselves. Bribe on Sister!

  6. My munchkin is just 10 months old, and I feel like I already have an unreasonable number of pictures of him. But I like to take pictures of the everyday things (like him falling asleep in his high chair after a big meal, or playing with my younger cousins) as well as the big events. My theory is that the big things will be remembered, but the fact that he looks like a little old man when he falls asleep in his chair with his hand on his belly is something I don’t want to forget! And I guess I am guilty of staging things sometimes, as much as one can with a 10 month old 🙂

  7. I love taking pictures and will grab a camera or my handy phone to snap one or two when they are doing something remarkably cute which happens all the time. Its fun to stick a really good one on FB or Pinterest and share with family and friends

  8. We rarely take photos. Which is good and bad. We don’t take them because I like to be right there enjoying or participating in the moment rather than documenting it. In that same way, there are no video recordings of anything either. However, there are times when I have to throw away the recital outfit that has been left on the floor after being part of a dress up fashion show that the cat has now peed or pooped, or peed and pooped on (he just can’t resist tool) and now, I don’t have the outfit or pictures to remember. But, I do have the memories and oh yes, grandparents who probably snapped a few shots. I love the idea of taking pictures, but it never seems to happen. I think I was scarred from having to hold up every gift I every received as a child while a snap shot was taken so I would have a documentation of every gift I have ever received. It ruined me from wanting pictures taken. But, I do love looking at them. Maybe this summer I will try to find a happy medium.

  9. I set my standards low. One formal family picture on our anniversary, and formal individual pictures of the birthday kid.
    I don’t usually have to bribe the kids, but I’ll tell you – that photo appointment is FAST. One outfit, no changes, and as soon as I see a kid losing interest, the appointment is over. What we got is what we got.
    My little one’s 6 week picture has him still puckered up from surprising him by taking out his pacifier. His brother was sick that day, and we got only one shot of them together. It’s the saddest pic you’ve ever seen. Fever boy had red rings around his eyes.
    But here’s the thing – that’s what we looked like that day. That picture is our truth. And I wouldn’t retake them for anything.

    • I’m with you! My daughter’s 3 year old picture is her in the stinkiest purple tennis shoes (her favorite) in a little denim dress that is super wrinkled (I don’t iron and it was her favorite), her hair is ratty as anything because she would never let me brush it, and she has no less than 5 band-aids showing. She has a big smile and is holding the hem of her dress out like a princess because she thinks she is so cuts. And she was! And is! And that is her right at that moment. A shot of her pressed and all done up would never have captured her stinky, ratty, awesome 3 year old self.

  10. I do a little staging, but if it doesn’t work out, oh well. I don’t want my kids to remember me for that (and mine are littler and therefore, less bribeable). So, yesterday, I took a picture, and posted it to Facebook, with 3 kids smiling nicely, 1 looking like she’s lasting at her brother (I think she was actually confused), and 1 staring blankly at me. I’ll take it. 😉

  11. My daughter loves having her picture taken. And taking pictures. She is almost 4. Snags my phone regularly and takes pictures of everything and anything. Including her cute naked butt.

  12. Remote headphones: genius! If I had those at my house, why, I wouldn’t sing the Wonder Pets’ song every blasted time the phone rings!

  13. My twin boys, age 3, like to take the pictures. So, this summer I will have random picturespictures of Aunt Debbie’s elbow, Uncle Jim’s chin, a glass of sweet tea & a picture of my eye thru a child’s fingers blocking the lens (all taken this weekend on our trip to Atlanta). I still sneak in my “smile for Mama” shots.

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