An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

On Sunday, while watching David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, my daughter turned to me during one of its late tear-jerking moments–as the titular dragon, apparently named Elliott, faces grave danger from the usual motley crew of busybodies, law enforcement types, and crass exploiters who would imprison him for all sorts of nefarious purposes–and said that ‘sometimes sad movies make you sad, they make you cry.’ (For ‘Elliott,’ substitute ‘ET‘ and you will get some idea of what was afoot in the movie.) As she said this, her lips quivered, she swallowed rapidly, and her voice quavered and broke. She might even have dropped an actual tear. A short while later, as poor Elliott was further mistreated, she burst into tears and burrowed face down into the couch, snuggling up against her mother.

I watched this behavior with some astonishment–before I ran to offer her some consolation to the effect that this being a Hollywood movie, I could predict with some confidence that Elliott was going to be just fine. Indeed he was.

But my surprise and astonishment remained. For some reason, even though tears and crying are an all too frequent occurrence in my four-year old’s life–as they are in those of most others like her–I had not considered that she could be moved to tears by a melodramatic or melancholy movie. Tears on being denied sundry goodies, yes; tears in response to physical injury, perceived or imaginary, yes; but tears in response to the misfortunes of others, tears that originated in sympathy or empathy, no. Perhaps I was learning yet another lesson about the emotional complexity of children; perhaps I had not been paying sufficient attention to my child’s responses on previous, similar, occasions (she has often, of course, been frightened or awed by the images she has seen during her ‘weekly movie treat’); in either case, I had been educated. And impressed.

It is not entirely clear to me why I did not think children as young as my daughter could have had the reaction she did to cinematic and cultural offerings. After all, as I noted above, they are extraordinarily sensitive; and lacking a full arsenal of linguistic and emotional resources for coping with injury, crying makes all too-frequent an appearance in their responses to external stimuli. In the case of my daughter, I was also taken aback by her announcement that she was feeling ‘sad,’ that she was going to cry. The reaction that followed this announcement, one that was also, I think, infected with a kind of sympathetic fear for Elliott’s fate, would have been far more comprehensible to me; it would have followed a pattern of spontaneous, highly emotional reactions visible elsewhere. But her–dare I say, articulate–preamble threw me off. It was evidence of a verbal and emotional maturity that I had not previously reckoned with.

This will not be the last time, obviously, that my daughter will say or do something that will surprise me. Some of these surprises will be more pleasant than others. May the tribe of those pleasures of parenting increase.

2 comments on “An Unexpected Lesson On The Emotional Complexity Of Children

  1. A Mary Cerreto says:

    That at four years old your daughter is able to verbalize her feelings deserves tremendous praise to her parents. Children who learn how to verbalize their feelings (such as anger) then have the ability to make the decision to act on them or not. And as far as children’s empathy goes, a three-year-old child will offer a teddy pair to another child who is crying. At this early age, it’s probably sympathy (how I would feel if I were crying) rather than empathy (I understand how you feel when you are crying). A very nice lesson – Mary
    PS The topic of my dissertation a hundred years ago was childhood empathy!

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Thanks; I’ll happily accept that compliment. I feel like a lousy parent most of the time, so this helps 🙂 Your points about sympathy and empathy are, of course, spot on!

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