No, Don't "Follow Your Heart"

The Shrunken Goblin - Chloe Feels Bad for the Goblin

“Follow your heart,” is an extremely popular sentiment in children’s entertainment. It is used explicitly in Disney and Don Bluth productions, as well as driving the emotive arc of other countless stories and movies - from Aladdin to Zootopia. It is so consistent that you will be hard-pressed to find children’s entertainment that rejects it. The advice has even been echoed by pop culture idols like Steve Jobs and Rihanna.

There’s just one problem: It’s bad advice.

It always seems great in the movies. Finding “love” or “being true to yourself” in the face of adversity or suffocating social strictures is compelling stuff. But even with the Hollywood’s cherry-picked positive framing, the reality is that infatuation and indulgence will not form the foundation of stable, successful life. Emotional responses do not consider consequences and or make long-term plans.

But worse, not all movements of the heart are good or even good-intentioned. Disney, et al like to tell the stories of emotional triumphs, but real emotions are just as often destructive. The hearts of humans are just as full of anger, lust, and greed as they are of love and honesty.

This isn’t a new observation. Most major religions recognize the fallibility of people. The degrees of inherent corruption vary, but Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism recognize that there are emotional impulses that are better not followed and which, if indulged, will lead to suffering. All of these religions are ancient and reflect hard-won lessons. Modern people ignore these lessons at our own peril.

If you are a member of one of these faiths, you owe it to your children to explain the differences between your long-standing doctrines and the doctrines espoused by the books and movies you give them. You may, even as a religious person, not feel strongly one way or the other. That’s fine. Your children can make their own decisions as they grow, but their decisions will only be as good as the inputs. Give them both sides of the story.

You can argue that “follow your heart” does always mean “give in to your emotional impulses.” Perhaps it could be interpreted as “seek happiness,” “value love,” or even simply “consider your emotions.” Just because it can be interpreted one way, however, doesn’t mean it will. If you have a preferred interpretation, you should see if your kids are taking the same lessons away from the movies.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, they say. “Follow your heart,” probably started in a perfectly benign place: Pursue what makes you happy, even through adversity. But as it is fashioned into a restraint-defying, fence-wrecking new social more, it’s worth another look.

In real life, “follow your heart” is less often the slogan of princesses and more often the slogan of convicts, addicts, and habitual divorcees. Unless that is the future we want for our children, it our duty as parents to help them understand the potential pitfalls of this popular siren song.

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