Saturday, September 19, 2015

Inside "Inside Out"

Pixar's latest animated film Inside Out has taken the world by storm. The movie, about five tiny emotions that live inside a person's head, has swept box offices across the world with its portrayal of how the human psyche is controlled by the interplay of five emotions, and how these emotions control how people act in the real world. As a counsellor, I was drawn by the interesting premise of the movie; so I took Sue to watch it on her birthday, as part of her getaway day in Johor Bahru, Malaysia. To our horror, the characters started speaking in Cantonese... and there were no subtitles! So that was how we had the most romantic experience of watching our first Cantonese movie together... (For the curious and uninitiated, you can view the Cantonese trailer here. Do also note that the post contains spoilers for those who have yet to watch the movie!)
Official Poster of Inside Out. Photo credits:
Language notwithstanding, both of us enjoyed the movie even though we did not understand most of the words (it can be strange when "Joy" is called "Ah Lok" and "Sadness" is called "Ah Sao"). But we realised that the movie had to be good if parts of it could bring tears to our eyes even though we could not fully understand all of it!

There is much to learn from Inside Out that can be applied to parenting. Given that I'm currently doing a module on the "Theory and Practice of Counselling", there was so much of the movie that made sense to me and I know I can continue to apply it as I learn more about counselling.

The movie starts out with the premise that each of us is controlled by five major emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. These five emotions live in the headquarters in the brain, and control most of our action and behaviours. 11-year-old Riley, a girl who had recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, is the main character of the film, and it discusses the transitional trauma she faces in moving to a new house and attending a new school. 

Most of Riley's core memories have been controlled by Joy, as she single-handedly attempts to direct the actions and behaviours of Riley all the way from birth to adolescence. However, when Sadness tries to intervene at a critical point (resulting in Riley crying in front of her entire class), Joy attempts to stop that memory from becoming part of Riley's core. Joy and Sadness are inadvertently swept away from the control headquarters into the recesses of Riley's brain, leaving a disoriented Fear, Disgust and Anger to control Riley's actions (and they do a terrible job at this).
Our older son has had a roller coaster ride with art. When Z first started at
heArt Studio almost a year and a half ago, it was fear that was in the driver seat.
Now art gives him the confidence to work hard in other areas.
Joy and Sadness attempt to return to the control headquarters, but not before they witness the terrible effects of Riley acting without Joy or Sadness - her worlds of "fun", "friends" and "significance" crumble metaphorically and physically as she is directed by Fear, Disgust and Anger. 

There is a particularly poignant scene when Joy blames Sadness for causing the recent turmoil in Riley's life and chases her away, telling her that there is no need for Sadness in Riley's life. She then attempts to return to the control headquarters alone with Bing Bong, Riley's long-lost imaginary childhood friend. But Joy and Bing Bong instead fall deep into the chasms of Riley's Forgotten Memories. As both of them attempt to escape, Joy stumbles on a memory, hidden deep within Riley's unconscious. She acquires a new understanding that one of Riley's happiest memories of receiving the love of her parents and the affirmation of her hockey teammates that been preceded by the deep sadness RIley had faced after losing her hockey match. It was then that Joy realised the importance of Sadness in helping Riley experience Joy.

When the two emotions finally return to the control room, Joy has a change of heart; she allows Sadness to take control of the terrible situation that had arisen - Riley was planning to leave home at the instigation of Anger. The emotion of Sadness caused Riley to remember that she had parents who loved her, and the tears that she shed together with her parents helped to bring healing and reconciliation to all in the family.
Families are all about helping each other experience the fullness of our emotions.
Who would we turn to if we did not have our family to love us just as we are?
Emotions are the driving force of all that we do. When we are happy, we tend to act more positively to the people around us. When we are sad, we tend to distance ourselves from others and choose to seek solace alone. Problems arise when we behave in an incongruent manner to what we feel - for instance when we force ourselves to be happy even though we feel terribly sad deep inside; the converse is true - when we try to hide our feelings of happiness and present a front that is stoic or emotionless. Inside Out begins in this manner; and at the start we assume that Joy is the best emotion to direct the behaviour of Riley. However, as we journey along, we realise this is actually a terrible idea. While it may seem all hunky dory to have the single emotion of Joy in the driver's seat, this actually suppresses all other emotions, and the person you see is one devoid of the deep emotions that help bring colour to life - the outcome we see at the end when Joy finally allows all the other four emotions a joint role in directing the actions of Riley.
Our two boys enjoying a moment of happiness together. Their interactions have been mostly
happy ones; although sometimes anger and sadness take over when brothers decide to fight, 
or if they refuse to give in to each other. 
Psychodynamic theory tells us that if we want to resolve the issues we face in our adulthood, we need to re-examine our childhood, and uncover the deep emotions that have been suppressed there. This idea of the unconscious was first developed by Sigmund Freud, who did much of his work helping his clients to explore their childhood hurts. 

As parents, we are the custodians of our children's childhood. Most of the work we do as parents is derived from the behavioural branch of psychology, which emphasises the practice of rewards and punishment in order to help shape the actions and behaviours of our children. However, many parents forget to help their children understand their emotions, or they are unable to teach their children the emotional vocabulary that is essential towards helping kids articulate how they feel. Parents fail to understand that if children do not acquire an acute emotional awareness of the situation, they would not be able to produce an appropriate social response, which would significantly affect the social and emotional wellbeing of the child not only in the present, but also in the future.
What goes on in the mind of a 3yo?
Happiness? Sadness? Fear? Anger? Loneliness?
Our two kids are at the stage of learning how to express their emotions. I wrote an article when the older son was 2/1/2-years-old, discussing how important it is to help our children articulate their emotions. And just two weeks ago, we had attended the birthday party of a good friend and the two boys were presented with helium balloons after the event. With a gleam of mischief, the older child untied the balloons to watch them soar away into the sky. The younger boy, who turned 3 in July, stared hard at his brother.

E: Kor Kor, why did you do that? I'm so angry with you. 
Z: Sorry. 
E: Why did you let the balloon go? I'm so sad...
Z: I'm so sorry.

And the two boys were directed to try asking for more balloons; an act that finally brought a smile back to the face of the little one.
Our younger one has had a fondness for balloons as far back as we can remember.
Here he is with his older brother. They are seen here playing with balloons at an 
aunt's wedding in Melaka, Malaysia.
Another mistake that many parents seem to make is when they attempt to suppress the sad emotions faced by their children. We often hear parents saying "Don't cry. Everything will be ok." And while this action is well-meaning - trying to help the child get over a negative experience, it is not helpful for him or her in the longterm. Children who are taught that it is not ok to cry grow up trying to suppress their sad emotions, and they become confused individuals who are never fully able to express their emotions. A friend I know starts laughing every time she feels sad. However the laughter almost always hints of bitterness and hurt. This friend tells me that she has been brought up with the principle that being sad is wrong and that people were created to lead happy lives. These ideas have affected her significantly, and as an adult she now has difficulty trying to identify her emotions as well as knowing how to respond appropriately in a given social setting. 

We know there will be a long way to go in the journey of helping our children to fully express their emotions. We want to be there with them when they experience the most joyful of memories; but we also want to be there when they fall into the deepest pits of sadness and when they get driven through crises of anger and fear.

For life can never be experienced fully without the full suite of emotions to direct us along; and there can never be true joy if there is no encounter with sadness.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Chasing Rainbows?

Singapore has been in a state of celebration. And there is reason for it: the little red dot of an island-state has just turned 50 years after a moment of anguish in 1965. Historically, it is a milestone, and any social scientist will tell you that the first 50 years of a country's existence is the most important - it could lead to the development of an economically-viable entity, or one that others deem as a "failed state". I am thankful that Singapore has managed to tread the former path, and this has mostly certainly been the result of good governance as embodied by the leadership of our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the team that he had put in place

Mr Lee passed away earlier this year, and while the death was largely symbolic in relation to the governing direction of Singapore (the leadership seat has already changed hands twice), it was also a tangible indication that the first 50 years of Singapore's political life had come and gone, and that we are looking towards its next 50 - the so-called "SG100".
The SG100 child. We are parenting children who will be the next generation of leaders in Singapore.
Singapore's current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered his recent National Day Rally two weeks ago, and it was one peppered with numerous illustrations of Singapore's success (including the emotive opening item Home by one of my favourite local singers Kit Chan). And while the speech touched on many issues including housing and population concerns, I would like to focus on one of his key areas - that of educating our children:
"We said we would create more pathways for our children to chase rainbows, and we did:
- NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway for students who failed their PSLE, because we believe in our young and we will never give up on them 
- School of the Arts, Singapore, School of Science and Technology, Singapore, to cater to varied talents 
- First-class campuses for our Institute of Technical Education, Singapore 
- New universities (SUTD) Singapore University of Technology & Design, Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT), SIM University (UniSIM))."
The Prime Minister shared how important it is for our children to "chase rainbows", and he outlined various opportunities and pathways that the country has provided in recent years. As an educationalist, I discovered one gap in the PM's speech; there is a group of children that is missing - those who have embarked on the path of "homeschooling". 

It has been more than two years since our family started on this route. Indeed the journey has not been easy, and there have been a number of occasions when Sue and I have questioned whether we made the right decision. There are of course day-to-day struggles, but looking back, these two years have been fascinating for both our children.
One of our many homeschooling activities. This was a unit about apples and the boys
went to the market to learn about the different types of apples.
For starters, our children have developed a voracious appetite for books. They spend many moments at our coffee table devouring book after book. And each time Sue returns from the library with a new stash of books, you can almost detect a gleam of light as the boys rush to uncover what new gems have arrived. We too, have learnt much from the studies our children have embarked upon - with subjects as diverse as spiders and butterflies, the moon and planets, birds and nests, the history of aviation and flight, the human body.... The list gets longer each day. 
Developing a voracious appetite for books. The 3yo is reading a current favourite,
The Clown of God, by Tomie dePaola
In the arts, the children have developed a fine sense of music and they surprise us by humming a snippet from Jupiter, one of the pieces from Gustav Holst's The Planets. They have also managed to identify Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake from a compilation of symphonic music, and are able to describe music played by the violin as "sad". Both children also love dances and they tap along with the players from Riverdance, with the younger one sometimes standing on one leg and lifting the other in mid-air - we think he is imitating the dancers in Swan Lake. Our next adventure would be to take them to see a symphony - both boys are already identifying the various instruments in an orchestra.

In science, the children were fascinated with the principle of density and they learnt how hot air rises through the making of a homemade hot-air balloon, an object that they had already been fascinated since their holiday in Perth last year. They were also fascinated by the dinosaurs, and learnt the different theories explaining how these magnificent creatures went extinct.

For geography, we have visited many countries in our learning. We adopt a literature-based approach with "living books" from many different countries. (For more information on "living books" please read this post.) This series is known in homeschooling circles as Five in a Row), and every time we read a book, we will teach our kids about the place that the book was from. So the children have learnt about Italy, France, China etc. Our approach is similar for history, and the boys learn about the culture and historical traditions of the protagonists in their books. For instance in The Glorious Flight, they learnt about how each aviation pioneer played a contributing role towards the inaugural flight across the English Channel. While The Giraffe that Walked to Paris, the learning was about international diplomacy and life in Europe during the 1800s.
Tracing the flight route from Singapore to Australia - ahead of our
Perth trip this year.
Homeschooling has helped our children hone their love for nature. The lovely walks at the numerous parks and the trips along the canal near our home have been precious as lessons to teach our kids about life. The boys have learnt to be kind to snails; at one time stopping and picking up more than 10 snails - it was a valiant "rescue" attempt to deliver the "lonely" snails to their fellow molluscs. The children have also learnt about cycles and the frailties of life, for instance experiencing first-hand how difficult it is for a solitary caterpillar to metamorphose into a lovely butterfly.
That magical moment when you realise that the caterpillar you were cultivating had "suddenly" transformed into a
glorious butterfly!
And in contrast to what critics say, homeschooling has helped our children to develop good friendships. The soccer co-op we joined last year helped our boys to conquer their fear of uncertain situations, and they bonded very well with the other kids. And at the bird park co-op this year, the boys learnt the importance of being still and learning to observe nature. We will soon be embarking on an exciting new journey and the boys will be part of a Classical Conversations community that meets once a week for the next few years. This is something that Sue and I have been psyched about!
Some members of the lovely community of children who will be the boys' studymates
for the next couple of years.
Will the children in Singapore always be allowed to chase the rainbows of their dreams? I know there have already been many changes to the educational landscape and that divergent paths have already been created. But I think much more needs to be done. It's not just enough to legislate new pre-schools in a bid to strengthen the early childhood sector in Singapore. I believe there is also a need to allow children to be schooled according to choice - so if parents decide for their children to be homeschooled, such a choice should be acknowledged and respected - and this should not only be lip service.

All parents want the best for their children. Let's not only allow our children to chase rainbows. Let's teach them the science of rainbows; how a beam of light can be split into a spectrum of colours when it passes through a raindrop at a specific angle. Let's help them understand the art of rainbows; how each of the colours is unique and that if you mix and match different colours, that you get very different results. Let's help them appreciate the beauty of rainbows; how the brilliant burst of colour adds a resplendent touch to an otherwise gloomy day.

From the lyrics of one of my favourite songs:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows

And what's on the other side
Rainbows are visions
But only illusions
And rainbows have nothing to hide

So we've been told
And some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see
Some day we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me

May our children one day find the "rainbow connection" and pursue their dreams whatever they may be, and wherever they may go!