Finding Nemo, Part 1

Editor’s Note: Last week, Dad Matter’s writers Sam Hoover and Paul Asay started a conversation on the most memorable Dad’s in movies – why they are so memorable and what we can learn from their mistakes today. They began their discussion on Disney and Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Their discussion spilled over into their email over the next several days. Here’s what happened:

Hoover: When thinking about the themes of this movie, the biggest one that pops out to me is conquering fear-based parenting. Of course, if I lost my wife and all my babies except one, I’d be pretty cautious in protecting everything I had too … especially my kids.

Asay: And really, Nemo is all Marlin does have. I mean, I didn’t get a great look at their seawater abode, but I didn’t see a flat-screen TV or fancy sports car or anything. (On a side note, I wonder what a clown fish would drive? A Corvette Sting Ray, perchance?)

Hoover: That’s a good one. If you think of any others, let minnow.

Asay: Even for those of us dads who have more than enough “stuff,” I think it’s sometimes hard not to parent out of fear. We all want what’s best for our kids. We all want them to be safe. I think most of us take our roles as the family’s protectors pretty seriously. I think sometimes, we kinda think of ourselves as Liam Neeson-type of guy—protecting our children from all sorts of horrible danger. And unfortunately, we sometimes bound into the realm of being overprotective. Trust me: being the dad of a teen daughter who’s brought her share of boyfriends over to the house for dinner, I know.

Hoover: There’s something amiss in that statement: we parent out of fear because we want the best for our kids. If you were to say that out loud, it would simple sound ludicrous.

But if we want to be completely honest, that statement is really a lie. The truth is I parent out of fear because I want what’s best for me. I want a significantly cheaper parenting experience not having to rush my kids to the hospital. I’d rather stay inside and let the kids watch TV than lather them up with sunscreen and go outside and get all hot and sweaty.

I’ve made thousands of decisions already in my young dad-ship to reinforce this idea: Too often, I parent out of convenience. And it isn’t until our “fish” get snatched by “divers” that we come to this realization.

Asay: Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that, particularly when you have young kids (like you do). Anything you let your kids do becomes an imposition on you as a dad. They want to go to the park? You have to go with them. They want to restore an engine? You gotta buy the parts and teach your tots how best to use a blowtorch. Any “freedom” they experience is an imposition on you and your time.

But after several years of supervising your kids constantly, you get used to that level of supervision. And so when the time comes to let them wander outside your watchful eye, there is fear—genuine fear.

And when you look at Marlin’s situation—where, as you say, really everything except Nemo was taken away from him in the worst possible way—you can understand where that fear comes from. I gotta be honest here: While some parents lament how much time their children spend with cell phones (and for good reason) and don’t want to give them phones until they (the parents) feel they (the kids) are mature enough to handle them responsibly, I gave my own children emergency cell phones in their early teens. For me, it served as an electronic tether. It allowed me as a dad to feel just a little bit closer to my kids even when they weren’t around.

But the hard truth is that you can’t protect your kids all the time. It’s just not possible. And if you get too over-protective, that causes problems, too. We see Nemo bridle under Marlin’s constant babying. Even worse, I think, is Marlin’s concern over Nemo’s under-developed fin. He tells Nemo over and over that he’s different—weaker, in a way—than some of the more able-finned fish. He’s got to be even more careful and cautious. Marlin uses the fin as an excuse to keep Nemo close. And I kinda wonder where Nemo would’ve wound up had Pixar’s grand adventure not taken place. Would he have started to buy into the idea that he was weak? Not as good as the other fish? That’s a bad lesson to teach any kids, I think, be they clownfish or humans. Don’t you think?

Hoover: Buh, that’s almost the most cardinal of sins. Playing your children’s weaknesses to reinforce your parental fears. Makes me sick to my stomach because most parents would confess to doing this with the best intentions.

And what’s worse, when Nemo decides to push through his disability, he’s scolded (not his fault) and kidnapped (also not his fault). So how do you think parents should address their kids limitations? You certainly don’t want to instill in them an “I can do anything” attitude when that’s not realistic BUT you don’t want to snuff out their flame of imagination and possibility before they light any real purposeful fires.

Asay: Yeah, that’s sort of the gazillion dollar question, isn’t it? My own parents told me that I could do anything I set my mind to … but years of being picked last in kickball told me otherwise. Try as I might, I was never going to catch that blasted rubber ball before it bounced off my head. Slowly, I grew to accept the fact that I’d never make it into the professional kickball league.

But I think I learned that lesson more effectively because I (through my own failures) learned it myself. If my parents had told me, “Stay away from kickball, son. You have the dexterity of a turnip,” it might’ve made me feel like a loser in other areas of my life. It might’ve convinced me that it’s far better to stay on the sidelines than try anything new. And as a result, I might’ve missed out on lots of stuff that I enjoy and (believe it or not) am pretty good at.

It’s such a cliché to say we learn from our mistakes, but it’s so true. God teaches us through our experiences. He shows us our character through our own weaknesses. And if we’re given the latitude to try to do stuff, we might find hidden reservoirs of strength and ability we never knew we had.

Nemo, in his adventure, found that he was stronger than either he or his dad thought he was. And yet, I think he really grew to accept and appreciate his dad more by the end of the movie, don’t you think? If Marlin learned to not parent through fear, what do you think Nemo learned?

Click here to read Part 2