I’ve been thinking about Encanto and the comfort it brings to children who feel burdened by the pressure to use their gifts. If you haven’t seen the movie, Encanto centers around the Madrigal family. They are blessed by a magical candle with an undying flame that grants superhuman powers to every family member. The gifts are revealed to the children through special golden doors at a certain age, except the film’s protagonist, Mirabel, who opens the door to find nothing. When the house begins to lose its magic, the family’s magic begins to waver, and cracks form in the building. She must uncover a dark family secret to undo the damage and save her family.
Besides the focus on family, the film shares a lesson on what happens when children are held to excessively high standards. The song ‘Surface Pressure’ most clearly shows the idea of living up to expectations. In this song, Luisa Madrigal, who has the gift of super strength, shares the difficulty of having more pressure put on her all the time.
Another song ‘What Else Can I Do?’ shares a similar theme, but it is more about perfectionism as Isabella Madrigal questions whether producing perfect results is what she truly wants to do.
As a parent, I noticed my daughters connecting with these songs. We live in an area that is very academically competitive. This tends to make them comfortable with the idea that music, sports, arts, and other hobbies are all potentially competitive thing to do. They aren’t afraid to take part in try-outs and enter contests, even knowing there is a chance they won’t be the winner.
Although competitiveness has its benefits, at times it can feel like the facade of a house cracking as the Madrigal’s home does in Encanto, especially in the middle of an icy winter with Omicron keeping us at home, and with middle school midterms coming up soon. Balancing the stress of competitiveness with positive, mood-boosting activities matters, and it’s not always easy to do these days.
Higher expectations certainly can lead to higher achievement. I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt when I came across the idea of teacher expectations turning into self-fulfilling prophesies in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
One of the classic stories in the field of self-fulfilling prophecies is of a computer in England that was accidentally programmed incorrectly. In academic terms, it labeled a class of “bright” kids “dumb” kids and a class of supposedly “dumb” kids “bright.” And that computer report was the primary criterion that created the teachers’ paradigms about their students at the beginning of the year.
When the administration finally discovered the mistake five and a half months later, they decided to test the kids again without telling anyone what had happened. And the results were amazing. The “bright” kids had gone down significantly in IQ test points. They had been seen and treated as mentally limited, uncooperative, and difficult to teach. The teachers’ paradigms had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But scores in the supposedly “dumb” group had gone up. The teachers had treated them as though they were bright, and their energy, their hope, their optimism, their excitement had reflected high individual expectations and worth for those kids.
These teachers were asked what it was like during the first few weeks of the term. “For some reason, our methods weren’t working,” they replied. “So we had to change our methods.” The information showed that the kids were bright. If things weren’t working well, they figured it had to be the teaching methods. So they worked on methods. They were proactive; they worked in their Circle of Influence. Apparent learner disability was nothing more or less than teacher inflexibility.
At that time, I remember contemplating that parents could take that approach too, to see their children as bright, strong, gifted, kind, and beautiful, in order to cultivate those traits in them.
Higher expectations can be a mixed blessing. The problem is that with higher expectations, there can be a fear of failure and obsession with success. Although failure can have its benefits of revealing your true passions and strengths, some children who are raised in a competitive culture want to avoid failure no matter the effort involved. My daughters don’t like failure all, although who really does?
While watching Encanto, the theme of not letting talent define you was a good reminder to slow down and focus on mindfulness together. As a family, we miss the travel adventures we used to go on, but we can still take a trip to the book store together to pick out cool fidgets, add in a fun, last-minute playdate with friends unexpectedly, or plan a game night together. Our small celebrations help lower stress, but we must also work together to set reasonable expectations.