| Family Reflections |

Poker Face

Learning to keep a poker face is a great skill to acquire



oker is a card game that depends on one’s opponents not knowing what cards one is holding in one’s hand. Thus the term “poker face” refers to the skill of not revealing whether you have a great hand or a poor one by the intentional control of your facial muscles: no yelps of glee for picking a great card, no frowns of despair for picking a loser. In fact, even your eyes need to remain steady, unflinching, and your lips relaxed, forehead unfurled. The ultimate self-control.

Being able to maintain a “poker face” is a great parenting and marriage skill to have. Self-control, after all, offers so many benefits, and those who lack it, pay a price. For example, neither kids nor spouses communicate openly with parents/partners who are fast to snap. A wife who knows her husband will go ballistic when she tells him some upsetting news may avoid telling it to him in order to avoid the inevitable meltdown.

Later, when he finds out, he’s furious and dismayed to discover that he has a wife who withholds important information from him. He blames her for being dishonest rather than looking to his own behavior to see why she doesn’t want to tell him difficult things.

For instance, suppose a wife had to tell her husband that, while driving their brand-new vehicle, she crashed into another car, damaging that car as well as their own. As the astronomical dollar signs swirled in his head, the husband’s automatic, well-trained response would be his poker face. Maintaining that tight self-control, he’s able to ask, “Are you okay? It sounds terrifying!”

By controlling his facial muscles, the man’s poker face sends a message to his brain that there is no emergency  —no need for adrenaline and the corresponding emergency response of yelling, speed talking, and flapping of hands. The thinking, problem-solving part of the brain stays online. He’s able to be a truly supportive husband, someone who is easy to talk to even about unpleasant and upsetting matters and therefore someone who his wife can trust enough to be honest with.

Poker-Faced Parenting

The skill of poker face is particularly handy when raising teenagers. Teens are notorious for their striving toward independent functioning; they take impulsive risks in the name of adventure, comradery, and the compelling need to know. Hence, they make bad choices.

Take this scenario as an example:

Teen: Mom, the principal told me to tell you to call him. I think maybe it’s because they want to suspend me because of what the math teacher said.



Teen: Mom, the principal told me to tell you to call him. I think maybe it’s because they want to suspend me because of what the math teacher said.Poker-Faced Mom: Oh?

Poker-Faced Mom isn’t giving away her cards. Of course, she’s feeling alarmed, panicked, and dismayed. But knowing that she needs honest information from her teen right now, she’s not revealing her distress. She’s “playing her cards right” to facilitate honest communication. Her priority is to put herself in a position to best help her child, and her controlled response invites her child to open up with her story.

Poker-faced parenting isn’t natural for most of us. It’s a skill that must be honed. Because of its beneficial contribution to the establishment of peaceful, honest, open, and loving relationships, it’s well worth acquiring. We can practice on minor issues (“Mom, I forgot to give Aunt Leah the message”) and work our way up to bigger issues (“I lied because I knew you wouldn’t let me do it if I told you the truth”), and then on to Olympic-sized issues (“Mom, I’ve been expelled for...”).

You can have some fun practicing with friends. Have a friend pretend to be a spouse or child who will share some alarming news. Get ready to hear the news by relaxing your mouth and jaw. Soften your eyes. Slow down your breathing. Now have your friend share the bad news and maintaining your relaxed poker face, you respond briefly. (Pretend spouse says, “I lost all of our savings,” and you say, “Come. Sit down. Tell me about it.”) Keep practicing until you master your poker face or until you can’t laugh anymore — whichever comes first!


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 896)

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