Parenting Wisdom From “Leo” — and Two Books I Recommend

I wasn’t expecting much when a friend recommended the Netflix animated movie “Leo,” in which Adam Sandler voices a laid-back, elderly lizard. But our family settled on the couch for the flick, which runs a breezy one hour and 42 minutes.

On the surface, it’s a movie that appeals to kids. Fifth grade students get a fun surprise when they take turns bringing home the class pet — Leo the lizard — and discover he can talk. And not only that, but he’s a good listener and gives decent advice, too. After taking care of Leo, the kids return to school happier and more motivated, feeling acknowledged and understood.

The film was endearing and cute, as I anticipated. What I didn’t expect was how the movie seemed to speak directly to me as a parent.

In particular, a reference to “helicopter parenting” is evident throughout the film. One of the fifth grade students, Eli, is accompanied by a hovering drone that ensures he’s safe at all times. The faithful robot sidekick grabs his human bestie before he can skin his knees on the playground, cheats to make sure he wins a game of dodgeball, and generally serves as a 24/7 cheerleader.

Yikes, that’s so real, I thought, and tried not to cringe. There was something painful about watching the drone anticipate every potentially uncomfortable situation, then act before Eli even had a chance to voice an opinion. And we see the impact on Eli, who might be safe from allergens and wayward dodgeballs, but is also frustrated and bored to tears, wrestling with how to tell the drone to back off.

I don’t have a nifty drone at my disposal, but I certainly am guilty of stepping in to smooth the way for my kids, even when they’re capable of finding a solution themselves. Part of my motivation is to keep them safe, of course, but another factor is my own discomfort with knowing they’ll be scared, frustrated, or disappointed. Clinical psychologist and author Emily Edlynn discusses this phenomenon in a blog post, “The Empathy Problem for Parents.”

Developing empathy for our children and recognizing their emotions is critical, Edlynn says. But it becomes problematic “when we are so emotionally aligned with our child that we take on their emotions. Their emotions become indistinguishable from ours,” she writes. “We want their bad feeling to stop, like putting a band-aid on a bloody knee. Or, we want to prevent it in the first place, so we curate experiences to be as safe and sanitized as possible.”

This reasoning makes so much sense to me — and it explains why that hovering drone struck a chord. By protecting my kids from both physical and emotional pain, I believe in some way that I can protect myself as well. But hovering has real downsides. It prevents our kids from becoming emotionally resilient and learning to cope in a healthy way with negative feelings.

Edlynn has a great book out, “Autonomy-Supportive Parenting: Reduce Parental Burnout and Raise Competent, Confident Children.” It’s full of sane, practical advice, and I highly recommend it.

Another time “Leo” yanked at my proverbial heartstrings? Near the end of the movie, the kids sing about what their lives were like when they were younger, all the way down to age one. The song, “When I Was Ten,” includes lines like these:

When I was nine, we still left milk for Santa Claus.

When I was four, I didn’t need to have a phone.

They hadn’t yet invented drones to follow me, when I was three.

There were no rules when I was one, except “don’t fall.”

We just had fun.

I don’t cry during movies. I just don’t. But some of these lines brought me close.

(Luckily, the song also talks about “butts” and “doodoo,” so there’s a nice balance of sweet and silly in the lyrics.)

The idea of kids growing up and becoming less innocent is nothing new. But the song’s references to screens and technology gave me pause. The ability to be online constantly has forced our kids to grow up faster. Having fun is no longer a simple prospect for kids who feel pressure to respond to every text message, keep up on social media, and project a curated version of their lives.

Like the fifth graders in “Leo,” our children have grown up embedded in this digital world, and there’s no unraveling that. But developing awareness about the way tech impacts kids and parents, and keeping the lines of communication open, can help us navigate tough issues together. Author Devorah Heitner talks about supporting and mentoring kids in a society of constant connectivity. She has an excellent book out as well, “Growing Up in Public: Coming of Age in a Digital World.”

It’s interesting to notice how your perspective changes once you become a parent. We can learn a lot from movies that are primarily marketed to kids. “Leo” had depth and tenderness, and I was surprised by how much it made me think. I’m glad we watched it.

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