Where Did All Our Happy Feet Go?

by Erik Fisher, Ph.D., aka Dr. E…

Erik FisherDo you remember the feeling you used to get when you were little and saw a movie about the underdog overcoming the odds, a journey of believing in one’s self, or a movie that involved some magic and wonder? Don’t you still love the feeling you have inside when the credits roll on some of your children’s movies? As the parent of a toddler, I have had the wonderful occasion to see my daughter explore the world of movies for her first time. Just watching the expressions on her face during some of the scenes is priceless. It is also interesting to see what she picks up from some of these movies, and it is not all good behaviors.

Some of her favorites to date are Shrek, Happy Feet, Finding Nemo, Polar Express and Beauty and the Beast.  My wife and I have thoughtfully and purposely limited the age that we introduced television and movies, as well as the number of movies she has watched, but that is another story for another day. What has interested me about watching these movies with her and remembering all the others like them through the years are the themes and messages we send to our children through these movies. Even more, many of these messages are for the adults also. I find myself looking at the metaphors and messages and enjoy finding the deeper meanings every time I watch them with my daughter.

The predominant theme in many of the movies that we and our children love, teach about virtues and values that we, as parents, would like them to adopt and some that we wish we still had. They teach about believing in one’s self, honesty, integrity, unconditional love, overcoming adversity, the consequences of ignorance and abuses of power, the downfall of greed and arrogance, and of course, there is always the happily ever after. Why is this so significant? Because the messages and themes that seem to exist in our adult culture contradict these themes. But why does this matter?

As a psychologist, I work with kids and adults. I hear their hopes and dreams, their disappointments and perceived failures, and their attitudes and beliefs that influence them. There are many times when I will be talking to clients, both young and old, and I will use inspirations or stories that come from movies. The common response that I get is, “That’s just a movie.” The feeling is that things that happen in movies don’t happen in real life. Taken further, many people feel that good things like that don’t happen at all - especially to them. It is not uncommon for people to be snickered at who believe that they have witnessed a miracle, let alone those who believe in themselves enough to think they can accomplish a daunting challenge.

So what happened? Why did we stop believing… and when? This isn’t just about miracles; this is about our belief in ourselves. We see the kids that are wide-eyed and accepting of so much, and they are often teased and called naïve by adults or stupid by kids, when some of these kids just have the ability to suspend disbelief and entertain the possible rather than the impossible. What I feel that I have seen is that there is a chipping away at our kid’s self-esteem and belief in the unseen that begins as kids are in elementary school. Whether it is parents, siblings, other kids or teachers, many of us almost feel it is our job to contribute to the erosion of our children’s belief in greatness and in the unseen. Some call it looking out for them and not wanting them to stand out in our world, while others just don’t like to see someone feel good about things and feel confident about their abilities. What is hidden behind many people’s cynicism and pessimism are past feelings of failure, shame, embarrassment, and rejection. It seems that it becomes easier not to believe than to feel the pain of past ridicule, betrayal and failure.

My belief is that we grow up in an age of innocence only to be indoctrinated into a lifetime of fear. Do we have to buy into this fear? Do our kids? Fear tends to result in a perceived loss of power. Confidence lends itself to a perceived gain in power. Furthermore, are we setting our kids up to feel betrayed by teaching them to believe and dream big only to be harshly taught differently, or is it our right to take this belief away. Have you ever seen someone who believes in themselves and/or in greater things really be harmed by their beliefs? The belief in greater things does not mean that one is suspending common sense; it just means that while we realize our chances, we believe that there is the possibility of more. We also may believe that feeling happy is a right, not a commodity to be traded in the home, at school or on the playground.

Look around you, and look at yourself. What do you believe? Not what do you want to believe, but when the rubber meets the road, what do you really believe? How are your more cynical attitudes communicated to your kids? And how do respond when you feel that your child’s beliefs have been dampened or crushed by others? You are entrusted with your child’s hopes, dreams and beliefs. Are you fostering their growth?

So, where did all our Happy Feet go? I am choosing to find mine again, and I will make sure my daughter keeps dancing to whatever song she hears. Maybe our kids have it right and maybe the movies are closer to truth than what we allow our lives to become. Maybe these movies are written from the heart and soul and we don’t have to surrender those feelings that we have a few minutes after we leave the movie. Here is the question I would like you to consider. Is it that we teach our kids to dream big and believe in the possible, or are they born that way? I will let you decide.

The Art of Empowered Parenting, by Erik FisherAbout the author:
Erik Fisher, PhD, aka Dr. E…, is a licensed psychologist and author of two books whose work has been featured on CNN, NBC, CBS, FOX and CNN. Visit him at www.ErikFisher.com.