How "Inside Out" Subverts the Western Invention of Childhood

When my Asian mom saw Inside Out, she said, “These Americans parents – they really care about their kids being happy.” She recalled how one of our friends’ parents (white Americans) decided to move their kids out of their old home before the movers came to pack everything. They wanted to shield them from seeing their childhood home vacant and empty—from being unhappy. My mom recounts the story with amazement, as my family has moved several times in the past decade, with no such emotional shielding.

Her story reminded me of a recent This American Life episode, "Birds & Bees," which talks about The Sharing Place, a grief support center for kids who have lost a family member. It is a place where kids come to learn and talk about death in their own words (e.g. murder is when somebody chooses to make your body stop working), free from the opaque euphemisms that adults use to talk about death to them. Americans try so hard to shield kids from the dark things in life – early episodes of Sesame Street now have an advisory message that they may not be suited for preschool children – that we have stymied children’s ability to grieve. (psychologists took awhile to accept that children can grieve).

Why do Americans try so hard? It is not just about our national obsession with happiness. It is also about our idealization of childhood as the only stage of innocence, in which we want our kids to stay as long as possible. That means no death, no PG-13 movies, and no “bad” feelings.

So when Riley’s mom tucks her into her sleeping bag on the floor. Riley seems like she is about to cry, but then her mom thanks her, saying, “Through all this confusion, you’ve stayed our happy girl.” And, on cue, Riley turns her sniffles into smiles. Her mom wants her, notably, to stay the happy child she always was, to remain in the realm of innocent joy, no matter how turbulent her current environment is. Riley is left without an outlet to grieve the loss of Minnesota, which contains all her friends and memories.

While the “innocent child” may seem like a natural fact, the truth is that we did not always believe children were that way. Philippe Aries, a French historian, argues that in the Middle Ages, children were basically seen as smaller versions of adults, and only around 17th and 18th century did we create the idea of “childhood” and romanticize it as an idyllic place of innocence. Take Augustine, who writes in Confessions around 400 AD that an infant is full of “capricious desires” that demand indulgence, and that any “innocence” he has lies “in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind.”

Compare his words to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opening to Emile, published in 1762: “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Author of things; everything degenerates in the hands of man." In other words, babies are good, but adults are corrupt. John Locke, in 1689, compares the mind of a baby to “white paper void of all characters, without any ideas." (It is worth noting that the 18th century is not just the century when “childhood” appears, but also when we start to rank “happiness” over “virtue,” or feeling good over being good.) Fast forward to today, where you will hear many a sermon on how we must be “innocent and simple like a child” if we want to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. All of which puts pressure on the parents to shield and protect their children as much as they can before they lose their happy innocence. 

So Inside Out is trying to complicate this picture of childhood and help us understand that the minds of children are not so simple and innocent, but are actually full of complexity and sadness. It is part of a small, growing trend in which we are culturally starting to paint a more complex understanding of children: they can experience gender dysphoria at age five, outsmart you while in 5th grade, and start charities at age six. And, sometimes, they can even feel sadness. 

Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she writes regularly here and elsewhere on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.