Dear Dr. Ray,
You’ve talked before about dealing with backtalk. But what about kids who give looks that could curl your hair? ―Curly

To paraphrase an old saying: You can’t discipline someone for what they’re thinking. If you could, kids would spend the better part of their days standing in corners or writing apologies. There are no studies on the subject, but I would guess that the average child thinks about misbehaving about ten times as much as he actually misbehaves. And if the eyes are the window to the soul, for kids the face is the window to the mind.

So what’s a parent to do in the face of a nasty face? Parallels can be drawn to handling backtalk. As tough as it can be to pinpoint what constitutes backtalk—using such variables as language, voice tone, and decibel level—it’s even trickier to pin down what is a backlook. Kids are quick to deny any verbal wrongdoing, but they’re even more slippery when accused of nonverbal misconduct: “What look on my face?”; “A fly landed on my nose and I blew it off; My eyeballs itched, so I rolled them around.”

The first step in calming backlooks is to define just what is a backlook. Many backlooks are not nasty. They are expressions of disagreement, discontent, or disdain. Put into words they convey, “I can’t believe you’re actually saying that.”

You’re probably better off ignoring, or at least pretending you don’t notice, these more benign countenance commentaries, for two reasons. One, if Sonny’s intention is to rile you with his looks, by getting upset you play right into his hands, or should I say, into his face. And two, since you’re most likely to see backlooks after you’ve disciplined or expressed an unpopular opinion, no sense adding fuel to the fire with the likes of: “You’d better wipe that look off your face, young man; Don’t look at me in that tone of voice; You watch your face, young lady.” In essence, as long as Sonny’s body is going to abide by your wishes, what his face says is secondary, so long as it’s not being abusive or disrespectful.

Nasty looks are a face of a different color. With younger children, a protruding tongue is a dead giveaway of mean intent, as are fingers wagging from the ears, nose, and under the chin. In fact, use your hands in conjunction with your face when you’re a kid, and you’re just about guaranteed a nasty, silent comment. Older kids aren’t so blatant. They rely more on “looks that can kill,” expressing with their eyes words they would never voice. I think it’s linked somehow to puberty and hormones.

As with nasty talk, nasty looks should carry a price tag. Nothing necessarily fancy, maybe a predetermined stay in a chair, corner, steps, etc. An older youngster might compose herself in her room for a period of time. You’d better believe on the way there, with her back to you, her face is contorting into expressions never before seen in nature. She might: a) compose a 150-word essay on proper facial etiquette; b) lose twenty-five cents off her allowance (call it your “face-value” fine); c) write a letter of apology. One dad said his response to nasty expressions was to have his thirteen year-old practice pleasant looks for five minutes in front of the mirror. After a particularly burning glare, daughter would also have to look pleasantly at dad. Talk about hard-core parenting.

Dr. Ray