5 Things Pixar Can Teach Us About Parenting

5 things pixar can teach us about parenting

What does raising kids have in common with running the world’s biggest animation studio? More than you might think, I discovered when I read Creativity Inc,  the inspiring memoir by Pixar founder Ed Catmull.

Catmull describes his book as ‘an expression of the ideas that … make the best in us possible’. I couldn’t sum up my parenting aspirations any better.

The book (full title: Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration) concludes with 37 starting-point principles for managing a creative culture.

‘Creative culture’ is a label that fits our quirky family well, so I got to thinking how Pixar’s wisdom might apply to us. The quotes below are all taken from Catmull’s principles.

1. ‘The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal …

… It leads to measuring everybody by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.’

‘Run smoothly’ probably isn’t a phrase that will ever apply to life in our family. Luckily we like rollercoasters.

As a parent I try to provide a safe and comfortable environment for my sensitive children, but my goal isn’t to avoid triggers at all costs.

Instead I trust my children to use challenges as opportunities to practise managing their intense reactions in situations they’ll face throughout their lives. Problem-solving trumps perfectionism.

2. ‘Engaging with exceptionally hard problems forces us to think differently’

Think back to life before you had your first child. What did you imagine being a parent would be like?

I know my own fantasies didn’t include being hauled into school week after week to be chastised for my 4-year-old’s behaviour. Or taking an 18 year career break to homeschool my children. Or grappling for words to explain to skeptical sports coaches, scout leaders and other parents that my child isn’t a spoilt brat, he just experiences the world differently.

But if I hadn’t faced those challenges, I’d never have sought coaching from the person who inspired me to remove my kids from school. I wouldn’t have immersed myself in the wonderful teachings of John Holt, Alfie Kohn and Peter Gray. I wouldn’t have reached around the world to kindred spirits whose wisdom and kindness contribute to my life every day. And I wouldn’t be planning a future career making the world a better place for differently-wired kids.

3. ‘Be wary of making too many rules …

… Rules can simplify things for managers but they can be demeaning to the 95% who behave well. Don’t create rules to rein in the other 5% – address abuses of common sense individually.’

The only rule when I was growing up was that I had to do what my mother said. If I didn’t, Mum would say, “You’re not going to Kate’s for tea after school tomorrow!” But I always knew that if I said sorry and behaved impeccably, my mother would relent and the playdate would be back on.

Even as a kid I could see that this worked better than the rules-based regimes that operated in my friends’ homes.  My siblings and I had an incentive to mend our ways, and Mum benefitted from cooperative kids.

In contrast, when my friends were naughty, their parents had to put up with them scowling round the house until the punishment had passed. Rules were rules, after all.

Life is much easier for me than it was for my mum. I have a supportive husband, a reliable income and an understanding of my own and my kids’ quirkiness. I don’t ask my children to do exactly as I say, and we don’t punish. But I do think my mum was onto something when she rewarded behaviour that matched her family’s values instead of dogmatically enforcing a rigid set of rules.

4. ‘For greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not so greatness …

… Our job… is to protect new ideas from those who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not so greatness. Protect the future, not the past.’

Differently-wired kids have so much to contribute to the world. But when they spend time around people who don’t understand their uniqueness, they can grow to believe that their differences are defects they need to fix or suppress.

The  idea I need to protect is my kids’ vulnerable self-image.  When they appreciate their authentic selves my children are much better placed to learn to manage their sensitivities and positively channel their intensities.

There will be times of not so greatness along the way, but given the right support I trust that my children will find their greatness.

5. ‘Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors you won’t have errors to fix …

… The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.’

Trying to avoid parenting errors means trying to be the perfect parent. Which of course doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t stop us exhausting ourselves in the process.

When I try to be perfect I’m vulnerable to extreme parenting as I manically try to follow the latest expert advice.

‘Should I ban all electronic devices and send my kids out to play in the woods all day, or should I be the perfect unschooler and let my son play World of Warcraft till 4am every night? Should I only buy organic food, or should I let them eat McDonalds for lunch every day if they ask to?’

Everywhere I turn, someone has a different opinion of what perfect parenting looks like. When I strive for perfection I lose touch with my own inner parenting compass.

So I won’t try to be perfect. I’ll make errors, I’ll fix them, and I’ll model happy imperfection.

5 Things Pixar can Teach us about parenting

Creativity Inc is filled with inspiring stories of mistakes that made Pixar stronger, and this philosophy underpins many of Catmull’s other principles, for instance:

‘Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It’s a necessary consequence of doing something new.’


‘Trust doesn’t mean that you trust that someone won’t screw up. It means you trust them even when they do screw up .’

Which of Ed Catmull’s principles do you relate to most? I’d love to hear from you!

* * *

If you enjoyed reading this post, I’d love you to share it on FaceBook. 🙂

Find me there at Laugh, Love, Learn and my homeschooling page Navigating By Joy.

You can subscribe to my weekly posts by leaving your email address in the box at the top of bottom of this page.

Have a wonderful week!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

4 thoughts on “5 Things Pixar Can Teach Us About Parenting

  1. Keeping in touch with our own inner parenting compass – I like it!

    We can tie ourselves in knots trying to do what’s ‘right’, but that sweetspot of ‘right’ is always changing, even from day to day and from context to context. And also from child to child. There are so many factors that colour the background of our parenting decisions.

    Thanks, Lucinda, for another thought-provoking post.

    Off on a tangent, as I’m prone to doing, there’s a great resource that Khan Academy and Pixar collaborated on. It’s about maths in animation and is called Pixar in a Box.

    1. “That sweetspot of ‘right’ is always changing.”

      Yes! I think that’s what makes parenting so interesting (even if I’m sometimes scrambling to keep up).

      Thanks for the reminder about Pixar on Khan Academy. I’ve had it on my list for ages but haven’t actually sat down to have a play yet. Once I do that I’m sure my children will be more inclined to join me. Have you used it?

Leave a Reply