Children are Marriage and Family Traditionalists

Early in my clinical career, I delivered psychosocial services to families who were going through divorce. Those experiences came back to me in a profound way as I have watched some Disney films with kids over the past few weeks. In children’s movies, the happy ending often isn’t just about the child characters succeeding by finding the lost treasure/defeating the school bully/solving the ancient mystery. On top of these happy outcomes is often a parental couple resolving interpersonal differences or a mom-like and dad-like character getting married (e.g., The Apple Dumpling Gang). And as for step-parents, you can pretty much count on them being evil in movies targeted at little ones.

From this I conclude that Disney really understood how traditional children are in matters of marriage and family. They want parents to stick with each other through thick and thin. They don’t notice or even care if the parents are squabbling, unfulfilled, not growing emotionally etc., they just want them to stick together and stick around. Even when a parent behaves horribly, for example by being violent or otherwise abusive, and a marriage ends, children often fantasize that the marriage will somehow be patched up.

In the powerhouse film Gone Baby Gone, a police detective makes a similar observation as he describes his reaction to an abused boy whom he finds in a crack house:

I mean, the father’s got him in this crack den, subsisting on Twinkies and ass-whippings, and this little boy just wants someone to tell him that he’s doing a good job. You’re worried what’s Catholic? I mean, kids forgive. Kids don’t judge. Kids turn the other cheek. What do they get for it?

As adults, we learn that some marriages, sadly, are never going to work and that some family situations are so dangerous and destructive that they simply cannot continue. Working with people in those situations, I saw them experience a two-fold agony. They were grappling not only with the pain of their current situation, but also with the loss of their childhood faith in the inevitability of happy endings.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.