Inside Out, Declan's Joy and the Heartbreaking Limits of Parental Power


As chronicled recently on this here site, I had an overwhelmingly powerful, visceral emotional response to the 2015 Pixar smash Inside Out. It made me weep. I loved it with all my soul. But it also helped me better understand my own emotional life and the central, largely unexamined role fear of sadness plays in it. 

I related deeply to Inside Out as someone who wrestles with depression and mental illness and is perpetually trying to understand and control my emotions. But it also resonated with my experiences as a parent. 

Riley, the sulky, anxiety-ridden and consequently eminently relatable 11 year old at the center of the film, essentially has a pair of parental duos. There are her loving but struggling literal parents, voiced by Kyle McLachlan and Diane Lane.

But the anthropomorphic emotions inside Riley’s head, particularly Joy (voiced and personified by Amy Pohler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) have a mission in life nearly identical to that of Riley’s parents: they must steer Riley out of danger and towards happiness and security as she struggles heroically and valiantly with the everyday terror of growing up and enduring the gauntlet of psychological horror that constitutes the middle-school years, and then high school.


As the film opens, Riley is a happy, secure, confident, well-adjusted young woman who takes great pleasure in hockey, goofing around with her parents and friends and life in general. That all changes when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco and the emotional foundations of her childhood begins to crumble and everything becomes scary and uncertain. 

This hit me close to home as a parent.  Right now the dominant emotion in my three and a half year old son Declan’s life is joy. It has been for as long as I can remember. He is an unusually happy and joyful spirit, particularly for the progeny of two depressives. My wife and I used to joke that there must have been a mix up at the nursery and our real baby, a morose, depressed and pessimistic tot, had accidentally been given to a happy, well-adjusted couple with an irrepressibly sunny disposition. 

Because Declan’s dominant emotion in life is joy, joy is a dominant emotion as well. Declan’s happiness makes me happy. I love to see the world through his big, adoring eyes. I love to experience new things through him, and old things as well, whether that’s me reading one of the many Sesame Street books from the 1970s I bought for him on Ebay or spending part of Father’s Day introducing him to the 1980s version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.


As a core parenting principle, I try to live in the moment and savor every day with Dex as if it were my last but Inside Out serves as a potent and powerful reminder that babies grow up, and toddlers become children, and then tweens, and then teens. The older our children get, the less control we have over them. 

Declan’s world is simple now. His pleasures are simple. Chocolate milk. Lego Spider-Man. Drawing. Hanging out with his dad. But that’s not always going to be the case. The world is going to get more and more complicated as he gets older, and probably darker as well. There will come a time when asking his mother or me for a hug, something he does regularly now, will seem deeply embarrassing, if not downright inconceivable.  


As Declan gets older, our power to make him happy will decrease as his internal life gets swampier and increasingly complicated. There will come a time, I suspect, when my inability to keep Declan from experiencing the never-ending stream of heartaches and disappointments that constitute so much of life will break my heart and make me feel powerless and vulnerable. 


Like Riley’s parents, my wife and I will just have to do the best we can to give Declan a solid foundation of unconditional love and support so that when the earthquakes of life hit, and I can vouch that they will, he’ll have the internal emotional resources to deal with them. There may be concrete limits to the power my wife and I have to keep Declan from experiencing sadness and heartbreak and disappointment, but there are, thankfully, no limits on love or devotion. 

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