Moana’s father lost his best friend to the sea, so he warned his daughter: “No one goes beyond the reef.” In Coco, Miguel’s great-great grandma was abandoned by her guitar-playing husband — and so music was forever banned from her home.
In my own home, the danger was horses. My dad’s compulsive gambling put our family into a perpetual state of poverty. He particularly loved betting on horse-racing. My mom was so traumatized by it that anything having to do with horses was forbidden. If I was surfing the channels and happened to pause on show with a horse, my mom would shout, “Turn that crap off.”
Most parents do not aim to be overprotective, but our best intentions are often defeated by our instincts and our fears. We tend to focus on the risks we know best — though not necessarily the most realistic ones. This “availability bias” is the human tendency to think that familiar problems are more common than they are, and parents often fall prey to the fallacy that our past — even an ancestral past — dictates our destiny.
And so, in Coco, Miguel’s musical ambitions are thwarted by the sins of his great-great-grandfather, after the story of his desertion became a cautionary tale, passed down to his descendants as if it were ingrained in their DNA. When Moana, frustrated by her father’s overprotectiveness, complains to her mother that “he just doesn’t understand me!” her mom sides with him and replies, “Your father is hard on you because he was you. Drawn to the sea. His best friend begged to be on that boat, but he couldn’t save him. He’s hoping that he can save you. Sometimes who we wish we were, and what we wish we could do, is just not meant to be.”
When I would press my mother about her overprotective ways and arbitrary, anti-horse rules, she would resort to similar rhetoric. My father was addicted to both gambling and alcohol — so as a consequence, I grew up in a dry household. I quite literally never saw a single can of beer or drop of alcohol in our house. My mom didn’t even want me to associate with anyone who consumed alcohol, adult or otherwise. Her exaggerated fears led me to believe that even a single sip of Bud Light would lead to my demise.
The sad irony of overprotective parenting is that it often pushes children toward the very dangers their parents seek to avoid. When parents try to eliminate all possible risk in a child’s environment — however tangential — they ultimately foster resentment, and stoke curiosity. In Coco, Miguel can’t resist his passion for music despite his family’s stern rebuke — so he stashes his guitar, records, and other memorabilia in a secret space. When his grandmother discovers his cache, she promptly destroys the guitar. Crushed, Miguel runs away into the night, in search of a new one. While his family frantically searches for him, Miguel’s fool-hearted drive leads him to the “Land of the Dead,” where he narrowly escapes death.
If you truly want the best for your child — and for them to avoid the problems you fear — an open and honest relationship is essential. The best way to encourage honesty in your children is to model it for them — not only in your words but also in your actions. Tell them how important it is to always tell each other to tell the truth — even when it’s difficult. Let them know that you can forgive disobedient behavior faster than dishonesty. Yes, you can impose consequences for their infractions, but they need to know there’s a benefit to being honest. Celebrate their courage to tell the truth rather than jump straight to their punishment — otherwise, they might not be so quick to fess up the next time. When parents angrily confront their kids, most children come out fighting, or denying, or lying. Being honest is hard.
Imagine you just caught your 16-year-old smoking pot — or worse, abusing opiates and other pain pills. The message we want to give our kids is “Don’t use drugs.” If they mess up, though, we want them to talk about it, rather than lie or cover things up. If it’s a serious addiction, the next time could be the last. Our children can be so worried about getting into hot water (or disappointing their parents), that they end up “choosing” death over facing judgment. Youthful addicts are more likely to enter recovery and find sobriety if their parents have already cultivated an open and honest relationship. If you make it safe for them, they will be honest. So be firm on honesty, and gentle on your kids.