Making faces

My two sons, like most children, have a special sign language they use when they think parents aren't looking.

Talking back gets them in trouble, but they have a better chance of getting away with a nonverbal retort. And if the other brother happens to be watching, all the better. They dissolve into titters, prompting the following transaction:

Dad (wheeling around): "What's so funny?"

Boys (in chorus): "Nothing!"

Dad (suspicious): "OK."

They think we never see them, and mostly we let them think that. Part of the parental strategy at our house is letting the boys unite against us. It gives them a common ground. Brothers should be close.

I remember making faces behind my parents' backs when I was a kid. They were mostly the same grimaces and gestures, coming from the Catalog of Universal Kid Misbehaviors. My kids resemble me enough that, when I catch them pulling faces at me, I can see myself there. It's unsettling.

Here now, for you inexperienced parents or for those with poor peripheral vision, is a primer to the gesticulations that are going on when they think you're not watching. Some have been omitted intentionally. This is a family newspaper.


No, this is not something you get in Asian restaurant. It's that well-practiced optical gesture all children have mastered. It can be used to indicate many emotions, most of which translate to: "My parent is an idiot."


Only works if a sibling is watching. Says, "Who knows what parents are thinking?"


More than the common unhappy expression. This one's exaggerated until the child resembles the sad clown at a circus. Used to express grief over whatever parent has just suggested. Most common reaction to "Go clean your room."


When parents say something particularly square or stupid, children clasp their hands to their throats, stick out their tongues and make gagging noises. This is funny the first time.


Children enjoy repeating whatever insipid command a parent has just issued. They do this without making a sound. They twist their lips around, then patter them together to mimic moronic parent. Think Chevy Chase on the old "Saturday Night Live" news show.


Every defiant child has stuck out his tongue at a retreating parent. It's a primitive challenge, a satisfying flaunt to authority. If busted, child faces mandatory solitude.


Many creative children come up with unique ways of expressing frustration. Creativity should be encouraged.

My older son expresses anger this way: His hands curve into claws beside his hips. His face turns red. He starts huffing and puffing. He looks like the big orange Monster in Bugs Bunny cartoons. Which, come to think of it, is probably where he got it. Laughing at him only makes it worse.

My 8-year-old can roll his eyes back in his head until only the whites show. Add in sunken cheeks and a protruding tongue and it's a particularly gruesome visage. That one can scare me if I suddenly turn around. Flashback to Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." Or KISS.


Parents devise many ways to react to these childish displays.

Some parents make faces right back, but this is not recommended. It only encourages bad behavior, and it can frighten smaller children and result in future psychiatrist fees.

Others ignore it, figuring it's a normal phase of childhood and will remedy itself before the child reaches college and makes faces at the dean.

Some parents clamp down on such misbehavior and remain in constant twitchy vigilance for the next incoming gesture. Some stomp around and yell about "respect," which is what the child was secretly hoping. Some harried parents just take the abuse, the same weary way they do everything else: Better to suffer than to turn it into a time-consuming debate.

I've opted for diversion. Now, when I catch my sons cutting up behind my back, I start loudly talking gibberish. They're so puzzled that they stop misbehaving. I tell them I'm quoting Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky." So far, they're buying it. It's a tasty little morsel of revenge.

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