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How ‘Inside Out’ Changed My Parenting Philosophy

The new Pixar film “Inside Out,” centers around an eleven-year-old girl named Riley going through a tumultuous time in her life- a big move, a new school, and tension with her parents. As viewers, we get a glimpse into her head, and learn of five key emotions represented by different animated characters— Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust – that all take turns in the driver’s seat of the girl’s mind. As the girl grows increasingly upset with her circumstances, Joy tries her hardest to override the others and take control in order to make the girl happy again.

One of the takeaways from the movie (Spoiler alert) is that it’s okay for Joy to not always be running the show. Although it is an impulse to try to be happy all the time and to want others around you to be happy, sometimes it’s important to let Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust take a turn behind the wheel.

As I watched the movie, I couldn’t help but think of my baby boy born 4 months ago, and how I want to raise him in the coming years.

When I was pregnant, I would chat with my girlfriends who had kids, or who were also pregnant, about the kind of mothers we aspired to become. “As long as my child is happy” was a common refrain. I nodded in agreement. What could be more important than my child’s happiness?

After having a son, I notice that friends, family and even strangers on the street, look at him and say, “Where’s my happy boy?” or “Can I get a smile?” Although these comments tend to be completely innocuous, I now cringe when I hear them. I want my son to be healthy, safe, and yes, happy but not all the time. I want to create the space for him to feel a range of emotions and I now see that it’s my responsibility to validate them.

I remember one afternoon when I cradled my newborn in the early weeks after just giving birth. Looking at his sweet face, I said to my mother that one day when he’s a teenager if he ever yells, “I hate you, Mom!” and slams the door in my face, I’m going to crumble. Hearing his abhorrence for me would be the most hurtful moment I could imagine after carrying him for nine months, delivering him, and tirelessly caring for him as a baby.

I’m trying to adjust my outlook. One day, I know he will be upset with me. I will give him permission to be angry, while also helping him express himself. Instead of slamming the door, I will teach him to articulate his frustration and communicate.

In the movie, Joy ultimately recognizes that she needs Sadness to save the day. Those two feelings often go hand in hand. “Inside Out” brings up the theme of letting go as we get older. Childhood memories that are happy can also be tinged with sadness, knowing that they are in the past and won’t be repeated.

This all culminates when Joy realizes that the protagonist has to give up her imaginary friend even though he’s a source of comfort. Riley has outgrown him and has to self-soothe and become more comfortable with discomfort. The feeling of loss is necessary in order to transition into adulthood.

I hope that my son tells me when he’s sad or scared instead of hiding behind a façade. Too often we assume others are happy, when frankly, we’re not sure how they are feeling.

Today when someone asks me what kind of mom I want to be, I have a different answer. I want to be a mom that can make her child feel heard and understood. I want to be a good listener and create a home where any thought, feeling or idea can be shared.

“Inside Out” put an important truth on the theater screen. Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust all play critical roles throughout our lives. As a mother, it’s my duty to harness those feelings and help my son channel them in a way that allows him to be his authentic self and allows me to be as receptive as possible, even when his hormones are raging, his pimples are popping, and doors are slamming.


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