A couple of weeks ago, on Father’s Day, in fact, Trudy and I took Eitan to the movies to see Inside Out. We had not made any significant plans for Father’s Day, aside from having dinner with my in-laws, partially due to the threat of inclement weather and partially due to the fact that the rest of June was so busy with other activities, like Eitan’s moving up ceremony from preschool, his birthday party and my brother’s wedding. A movie seemed like a nice relaxing way to spend some time together as a family.
First of all, the film was terrific. Most of the themes were probably a bit over Eitan’s head; after all, as smart as he is, he is only three years old and he is not quite ready to grasp concepts like moving to a different city or the emotional attachments that we have with certain memories. But he was able to recognize that Bing Bong’s tears were candy and that it was funny when the House of Cards got knocked over. He also enjoyed seeing Riley jumping on a trampoline and making goofy faces with her parents, two activities I’m sure he associates with his own parents.
And, as is usually the case with Pixar films, there were plenty of comments interspersed through the dialogue that were designed to keep adults interested, such as Riley’s mother’s frustration with her husband during dinner and Fear’s running commentary of Riley’s dreams. Pixar has been inserting those types of nuggets since their first few movies (A Bug’s Life; Monsters, Inc.; Toy Story; etc.) and they usually do a masterful job.1
The other reason I continue to go back to Pixar movies, though, is because they tell meaningful stories. Sure, kids watch Finding Nemo and enjoy it because of fish with funny voices. The same could be said about any of the other movies; they all have colorful characters who do silly things and have silly voices. But the film makers are particularly adept at portraying complex and challenging situations through those characters. Finding Nemo is about finding the balance between keeping one’s children safe and letting them explore and become independent. The Toy Story movies are about loyalty and friendship. Cars illustrates the dangers of hubris and the importance of treating others with respect. Inside Out demonstrates the ways children develop emotional intelligence and gives insight into the ways that parents encourage – and sometimes discourage – that development.
One of the things that I’ve seen parents do is try to shield their children from having to experience difficult situations. This is not necessarily a bad thing; certainly, our world is filled with enough negativity that our children will realize quickly enough that life is hard and that bad things happen. It’s why we monitor the shows and movies that our kids are watching and, in a perfect world, why we watch those programs with our kids; we want to be there to explain why bad things are happening to certain characters. But I think there is a danger in being overly zealous about “protecting” children from adversity, fictional or otherwise.2 If children never experience challenges, they will never learn to overcome them. The whole point of resiliency is that people are able to experience difficulties and use their problem solving skills to move past them.
In the movie, Joy believes that Riley should be protected from Sadness because she does not want Riley to feel any sort of suffering. The lesson that Joy learns – and that we have to teach our children – is that negative feelings may be uncomfortable, but that does not mean they are “bad.” Feelings like sadness, embarrassment, fear and anger may not be the most enjoyable experiences, but they also present opportunities for growth. The fact that we are capable of experiencing different combinations of feelings is what allows us to cheer each other on when things are going well and to comfort each other when tragedy strikes. We need to be able experience different feelings in order to understand what other people are going through. Completely ignoring a feeling not only prevents us from having a realistic view of the world, it prevents us from being able to feel empathy.
It makes us less human.
Our kids need to realize that they have the ability to develop coping skills to respond to negative circumstances, rather than just trying to avoid them. They need to know that it okay to feel sad or angry or afraid, just like it is okay to feel excited or happy. They need to learn that feelings are not “good” or “bad,” but that they are the ways in which we experience the world around us and the ways we share those experiences with others. They need to understand that empathy helps us become better people.
And it is up to us to teach them.
1. If you haven’t seen these movies, or it’s just been a while, I can’t recommend them strongly enough. The Toy Story trilogy, in particular, continues to be a set of my favorite movies.↩