Totoro + parenting

Totoro in the rain, Studio Ghibli. Source: @cinekatz's website (
Totoro in the rain, Studio Ghibli.
Source: @cinekatz’s website (

Last weekend, I spent Saturday afternoon watching Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro with the kids. It was their second viewing, and my first.

I know, how could I not have seen Totoro before this?

The kids loved the movie so much, they insisted I watch it ASAP. It’s not like I need to be compelled to watch Miyazaki. The first film I watched when I moved to Melbourne almost ten years ago now was Kiki’s Delivery Service, which was on at ACMI (it was also my first time at an ACMI screening…). The film evoked themes of curiosity, friendship, and the value of helping. I loved the film and the way I was left feeling that the world wasn’t such a bad place after all if something like this could be created.

I had an immensely satisfying time watching Totoro, too, weighted down with warm kiddie bodies, and having – once again – a beautiful, transporting time. I particularly enjoyed the fine detail of expressions and characters, magnificence of creatures, and communal good that was represented.

One thing I kept saying throughout the movie was, “What great kids!”.

And they were. In the midst of gambolling in the woods, poking out tongues at neighbours, and having the usual sibling meltdowns, Satsuki and Mei were helpful, respectful, and overwhelmingly kind. It was no effort at all to fall in love with them. Their father was clearly a parent who had fun with his kids, and trusted them with much. I also loved the neighbour granny who so readily took the children in and cared for them. The older I get, the more I appreciate (functional) multigenerational family models and, by extension, having my mum around us so much. If she wasn’t with us in the same household, I’d spend a major chunk of my week thinking about visiting her and hoping she’s not lonely.

Watching the film, and being thoroughly engaged by the forest spirits, I also started thinking more about the article by Nicholas Day that @tammois had flagged to a few of us on Twitter. It talked about “parental ethnotheories”, and how the dominant modes of thought about American parenting and what ‘desirable’ developmental traits were made Americans “deeply strange people” (Day). While I don’t need much convincing that contemporary parenting wisdom straddles many extremes, what interested me most in the article was in the second last paragraph:

the concept of ng’om, which is used by the Kipsigis people in rural Kenya to describe children who are especially intelligent and responsible. This concept of intelligence, as [Sara] Harkness and [Charles] Super have written, highlights “aspects of social competence, including responsibility and helpfulness.” These aspects, they add dryly, “have tended to be overlooked in Western formal theories of children’s intelligence.”

I love the idea of ng’om, and connecting intelligence with responsibility. I think some aspects of this are sometimes branded as ‘social intelligence’ or ’emotional IQ’ in Western pop.psych circles, but they’re usually only used to describe adult behaviours and tendencies, not those of children.

I’d like to see compassion feature as part of developmental milestones, too. We were at a kids’ party a while ago and there was a scene that has stayed with me. There were three girls involved. Girl 1 fell over in the playground while running around; she started crying and holding her knee. Girl 2 laughed and heckled Girl 1 for crying. Girl 3 sat with Girl 1, put her arm around her and waited till she was ok again. It’s obvious which behaviour I’d like to encourage in that little vignette!


4 thoughts on “Totoro + parenting

  1. The Vern 25/04/2013 / 3:29 am

    I love this review very much, I’ve never heard of the idea of ng’om before but I really like it and wish it was embraced more today then it is.

    • Tseen Khoo 25/04/2013 / 9:45 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I’d never heard of ng’om before either, but knew of contrasting notions of ‘childhood’ and what was expected of children. There’s a strong…disdain?…for practices that do not match Western ones. Many things come to mind! E.g. co-sleeping, carrying babies around.

  2. oanh 06/05/2013 / 8:24 pm

    I cannot believe you have not seen My Neighbour Totoro before now! I love it, and have watched it multiple times. I love that Hiyao Miyazaki’s children are fully characterised, and that their successes stem from a variety of admirable traits that are not necessarily ones western culture seeks to develop in children (I’m thinking of the stubbornness of the girl in Spirited Away, and Mei’s curiosity that takes her far from safety.). Oh, I want to watch Totoro again!

    • Tseen Khoo 06/05/2013 / 10:27 pm

      I know, it’s not good, is it? I should probably break it to you now that I haven’t seen all of Miyazaki’s films (e.g. Howl, Dance of the Fireflies). And you’re spot on about the kids being fully realised. They’re not lesser characters seeking ‘development’ in the narrative; in fact, their personalities are what drive the story. I just love the nuance. The films treat viewers as intelligent. It’s a distinct pleasure.

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