Alyssa Wermers, LCSW

Play Therapy Services * Dacono, CO

Lessons from Matilda - the impact of parents

I still remember the cracking of the spine every time I’d smooth out the pages to keep reading. A book about a girl who loved books…what could be better? I must have read it a dozen times as a kid. Now as I read Matilda, I have a different experience. Don’t get me wrong – there is still the magic of kids outsmarting Ms. Trunchbull and the feel good relationship between Ms. Honey and Matilda. But now the therapist in me cringes each time Matilda is discouraged from doing schoolwork, and my gut wrenches when I hear her parent’s insult her.

What’s changed? As a kid I just felt bad for Matilda. As an adult I understand the long term detrimental effects that emotional abuse has on children, and I feel angry. I’m going to keep that anger in check though, because this post is not about parent bashing or blaming. But Matilda’s parents do bring up issues that are just too great to not talk about, so let’s get to it.

It’s so very important to support kids in their interests, even if they are not our own. This is an experience that Matilda did not get to have with her parents. Matilda loves to read! And she loves to learn! These were not priorities for her parents at all, and they made it clear to Matilda that it was a waste of her time (according to their values). I won’t even get on my soapbox here about how this is a problem. So let’s meet her parents where they are – they don’t value education. You as a parent may not value legos, or Harry Potter, or dinosaurs. Take a deep breath, it’s ok! You don’t have to value everything your child does. However, as long as it’s not dangerous, support your child in their interests. This is what will help them develop internal motivation, problem solving skills, and passion. And it has to be on their terms. Look at what Matilda accomplished when she wasn’t supported by her parents (other support factors helped with this). I wonder where she would be if she was.

Secondly, kids internalize messages that you send them. Yes, even if they disobey you, or disrespect you, your messages are likely hidden inside of them somewhere, even messages that are not spoken out loud. Messages such as “I'm right and you're wrong, I'm big and you're small, and there's nothing you can do about it,” are downright damaging when given over and over. This is just a taste of what Matilda experienced. In the story, Matilda had stories, friends, and Ms. Honey as resilience factors (things in her life that can counter-balance the negativity.) Not all kids have such strong resilience factors, and sometimes the emotional abuse is stronger than those factors. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are belittling children (such as when we tell them to suck it up, stop crying, or that they shouldn’t feel a certain way.) Even these messages are internalized and effect how kids learn to deal with difficult situations. The messages we send have long lasting effects on the psyche that can result in self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression, you name it. Remember, kids need to learn how to handle things, not just be told they are wrong or how to do things. Even subtle messages (Ugg, just let me do it) can be internalized to mean bigger things (You can’t do things).

While I could go on about the emotional abuse presented in Matilda (we didn’t even touch on school and Ms. Trunchbull!) I’m starting to feel a bit rotten inside of my gut, which tells me it’s time to take some deep breaths and leave you with hope. Matilda not only teaches us what not to do to kids, it also shows us the power of positives, such as the guidance and love from Ms. Honey. We cannot control other people (ie. Matilda’s parents), but we control how we interact with others, and what we give to our children. Think back to the last time you read this book. What feelings did you get with Ms. Honey? What did she give to Matilda that no one else did? Can you do that?