When you take your kids to see a Pixar film, you know you’d better bring some tissues.
I learned my lesson when Nemo was found. I learned it again during Jesse the cowgirl’s tribute to forgotten toys, and again when the old guy in “Up” remembers his wife. That scene in “Toy Story 3,” when Andy goes off to college and leaves his beloved toys with the little girl, just about ruined me for good.
“Inside Out” continues the tender, tear-filled tradition. But this time the sniffles come with a surprising lesson in parenting.
I saw the movie this week with my kids, who aren’t exactly kids anymore. Hannah, 17, and Jack, 14, were drawn to the film by its premise and its team of celebrity voices: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and others voicing the range of emotions inside the head of Riley, the 11-year-old main character.
But it was Sadness – the mopey, bespectacled, teardrop-shaped character perfectly voiced by Phyllis Smith of “The Office” – that got my teenagers really thinking about what it means to grow up.
And as the kids would put it, the movie got me feeling some type of way – about happiness, sadness and the importance of both.
How many times have I, like Riley’s parents, urged my children to stay positive, keep smiling, be happy? Answer: a lot. Probably too often.
Growing up is hard. Sometimes it’s sad. Things happen that don’t make sense. Friends leave. People hurt your feelings. We feel alone or scared or unloved.
My first instinct as a mom in those situations is not unlike that of Poehler’s character, Joy, desperately chipper:
Chin up! Keep smiling! Everything’s gonna be OK! We can fix this! Let’s have some ice cream! Here comes the tickle monster!
I learned only recently, during a particularly sad episode in my daughter’s life, that relentless positivity isn’t always positive. Sometimes kids need to recognize and embrace sadness, not minimize it.
It’s OK to cry, or even to wallow. As the adorable, turtlenecked character Sadness says in the movie: “Crying helps me slow down and obsess about the weight of life’s problems.”
The line gets giggles in the theater, but think about it: That weight is immense, especially during adolescence, when kids are letting go of childhood and transforming into their deeper-thinking, deeper-feeling adult selves. We need to allow teenagers – and ourselves – to just be sad sometimes.
Kids need to know that life is beautiful not in spite of its complexity, but because of it. Human emotion is as varied as the rainbow – fiery rage, white-faced fear, green disgust, sparkling happiness, blue sorrow – and that’s what makes us human.
When I stop trying to fix my kids’ problems, when I stop trying to distract their attention away from their sadness and just listen to them, acknowledge them, rub their backs or cry along with them, I grow as a mom and as a person.
It’s still hard for me. My preference is to look for solutions and silver linings, not listen silently and pass the tissues. But I’m getting better.
And I’m learning there’s joy in that, too.