She started fidgeting in her seat. She squeezed my hand. Then she got up and sat back down. I knew what was coming.
“Mama,” my 6-year-old daughter whispered loudly in the packed theater. “This is too scary. I’ve got to get out of here.”
“You’re fine,” I whispered back — reassuringly, I thought. “Just close your eyes if it’s too much.”
I regretted my words as soon as I spoke them. We were there for her, and if she wasn’t enjoying the movie, we should leave. But before I had the chance to correct myself, she had already bolted down the stairs.
The movie was Inside Out — a totally safe bet…I thought. I did my research before going. This was only our second time in a movie theater, and our first film, Frozen, had sent us packing to the lobby during the wolf chase and snow monster scenes. This time the film had no bad guys and reportedly nothing scary. We were going to be fine!
Over some consolatory ice cream, I asked her what she found so frightening.
“All those memories disappearing and crashing down,” she said. “And Mama, you were crying.”
Eye opening day at the movies
The movie itself and my daughter’s response to it were both eye opening for the same reason — emotions can be so intense and overwhelming and scary for kids. While I don’t think most kids would react this way to the film, I took stock of my own response to my sensitive child. I realized that I had attempted to negate her feelings by telling her that she was “fine.” The irony that the movie is about feelings, didn’t escape me.
Inside Out has the potential to change the way parents think about — and talk about — emotions with their kids. As parents, we often try to do whatever we can to keep our kids happy and shield them from feeling sad. When GreatSchools surveyed parents about their greatest hope for their children, the most popular answer was for their kids to “be happy.” However, Inside Out posits that happiness and sadness may actually go hand in hand. If our kids don’t experience sadness, they won’t know joy.
Girl empowerment website A Mighty Girl suggested Juna’s Jar, my first children’s book, as a companion title to Inside Out as a story that also deals with sadness. It surprised me because I didn’t set out to write a sad story and I didn’t think of the book that way. In fact, when some early reviews stated that Juna’s Jar was sad, I cringed. I worried that parents wouldn’t give the book a chance if they think it’s sad. Parents want books that will make their kids laugh, not cry. Research bears out my assumptions; according to Scholastic’s report, the Kids & Family Reading Report, 70 percent of parents say they look for books that will make their kids laugh.
I also love when a book can make my kids burst into giggles, but it touches my heart even more when a story can make them feel. When I would read Juna’s Jar to my 4-year-old son, he always stopped me on the part where Juna is devastated because her best friend moves away. He wanted something more from me on this page. He’d stare at me intently and wait for explanations and words of comfort. The fact that he empathized with Juna made me feel successful as a writer and relieved as a mother. I actually wrote something that could elicit empathy from my normally rambunctious, combative, and, at times, seemingly callous son.
When writing the book, I drew upon that common childhood experience where friends would sometimes just disappear from your life. I remember these emotionally complicated moments from my childhood as much as, if not more than, happy ones. I moved three times before third grade, and each time I felt like we moved under the cover of night. I don’t recall ever saying goodbye to my friends. We were expected to just start over in a new place and not mourn what we left behind.
I vowed to do better than my parents and make sure that my kids always get to say their goodbyes. But already friends have vanished from my daughter’s life without much explanation to her. She would be inseparable with someone at summer camp only to never see her again once camp ended. She had the same best friend throughout her preschool years, but once they graduated, the relationship couldn’t be maintained because we don’t have an outside link with her parents. It’s hard for me to hear my daughter still call this little girl her best friend, even though it’s been almost a year since she’s last seen her. I’m still struggling with what to say and how to help her say her goodbyes, if not in person, at least in her heart.
Figuring out big, complex issues
What we as parents don’t talk about with kids sometimes says more than what we do say. When we avoid difficult conversations about things such as race, sex, or emotions, we‘re leaving our little ones to figure out these big, complex issues by themselves. Although we may fear not saying the right thing or “making things worse” by talking about it — as Joy admonishes Sadness — as adults we have much more insight than our kids do. Sometimes just the acknowledgement of a difficult feeling is all that is needed. In my favorite moment in Inside Out, while Joy tried to distract Bing Bong from feeling sad, Sadness sits with him and simply acknowledges his feelings.
While filming our video series, Through a child’s eyes, kids shared many complicated emotions with me — frustration, jealousy, loneliness. While parents may wish to protect their kids from experiencing such difficult feelings, even in the short time I spent with these kids, I realized that I was witnessing growth. As they talked through their complex feelings, they were working things out. Rather than shelter them from experiencing difficult emotions, we can help our children work through them and develop into fuller human beings.
Researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, who collaborated with us on our videos, classify “sympathy” as an “unpleasant” emotion as opposed to a “pleasant” one. We had a debate in the office over this. We want our kids to feel sympathy, so isn’t it a pleasant emotion? I think the dissonance comes from realizing that we may actually want our kids to experience unpleasant emotions. But being able to experience an unpleasant emotion is actually something positive.
Happiness not only goal
So recently I’ve been trying reframe how I think about emotions. I no longer hope for my kids to just be happy. Nor do I simply want them to experience sadness just so that they can know happiness — because this still sets up being happy as the ultimate goal. This is abundantly clear to me when I sometimes see my younger, generally very happy child, all smiles and giggles even as his sister is in tears; this has greatly concerned me (Does he have a heart? Does he have empathy?). I know that I don’t want him to always be happy. Now my greatest hope is for my kids to be whole, feeling, empathic human beings who are able to deal with complex emotions in a healthy way. And it’s only possible by letting them experience sadness, sorrow, and all those complicated emotions that life presents.
“It’s so important for parents to work on their own skills,” says Robin Stern, associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Because what we know is that kids are watching you. So you want your kid to be calm in the face of adversity. But if you’re yelling and screaming, if you’re freaking out, it’s really going to be hard for your kid to learn those skills. You are your child’s first teacher — and most important teacher — about how to manage emotions.”
This means not telling my daughter that things are “fine” when they’re not. What was I teaching her by dismissing her feelings? Did I want her to repress them? Or not acknowledge other people’s feelings? I hope that one day she’ll be able to handle the intense emotions a movie can elicit … but in the meantime I’m glad that she knows when she’s not fine and changes the situation. Knowing that she was scared and didn’t have to be and walking out of the theater, well, she might be teaching her mama a thing or two about emotional intelligence.