Pixar’s “Inside Out” as a Cautionary Tale for Parents

Disney Pixar’s Inside Out is a child psychiatrist’s dream movie. The complicated interplay between experiences and emotions, and between emotions and actions, are front and center in this impressive family flick. It is difficult to describe the inner world of emotion, to a child, and I thank Pixar for making my job easier. Going forward, kids who’ve seen the movie will have a visual metaphor to help them understand the basic emotions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. Pixar even got the science right, as these are the most elemental emotions, critical to survival.

I was more impressed, however, by a concept that the film introduced: “Core Memories”. When significant events happen, the principle character, an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, takes notice, whether or not she notices herself noticing. In her brain, a Core Memory is formed, and it goes into a special holding tank from where it can transmit its energy to an “Island of Personality”. These islands represent what is most important to Riley, comprising her young “Self” — Family Island, Friendship Island, Goofball Island — and each is powered by the Core Memories associated with it.

At the film’s opening, we see Riley begin her young life with simple emotions and — lucky girl — nothing but joyful core memories. But life doesn’t stay simple or idyllic for long. When the family’s move to a distant state goes awry, Riley puts on a brave face to hide her sadness, as her parents become engrossed in the very pressing and sensible business of adult life. Left to fend for herself, Riley’s unacknowledged sadness steadily spirals into misery. When her parents misperceive her rising distress as defiance, it sets off a sequence of events that changes her emotional landscape forever.

And this is how “Inside Out” can be a cautionary tale, for parents. It is all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of adult life, with its deadlines and responsibilities, stresses and frustrations. It’s easy to forget that the child sitting across from us, at the dinner table, is taking it all in. Every action and inaction; our words, tone of voice, and body language. Nothing that we as parents do is too small to have an impact, and become a Core Memory encoded into the fabric of our child’s inner world.

While this might seem terrifying (it does, to me), it is in some regards a very good thing. While this means it is possible for parents to inadvertently wreak havoc upon a child’s inner world, it also means they have the power to repair the damage, and to help our children transform challenging experiences in positive and meaningful ones.

This parenting business is hard work, to a degree that the cliche “There is no manual…” does not even begin to do justice. At the end of the day, most parents are simply doing their best to juggle parenthood, adult life and their own inner worlds, and there is no way that such a juggling act can go totally right. “Inside Out” reminds us that every moment we spend with our children is potentially meaningful, confirms that we will mess some of these moments up and, ultimately, teaches us that we can — if we make a conscious effort to remain aware and engaged — help our children to grow beyond even the most difficult life circumstances and emotions.

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