Finding Nemo, Finding a Hero

Finding Nemo

Parenting Kids with Chronic Illnesses
using Love and Logic Tools

By Lisa Greene

Ask me about any adult movie (ie: Have you seen blank movie?) and my response is likely to be No.  Ask me about any kid movie and I could tell you about the characters, plot, and punch-line all in one breath.  That’s how it is when you live with a 6 year old and a 4 year old.  

So, it shouldn’t be too surprising when I tell you that it was in the children’s movie Finding Nemo that I saw a great metaphor of what it is like to live with kids with chronic illnesses.  You see, both of our children have cystic fibrosis so I do know what it’s like.  And, like the clown fish dad on Nemo (named Marlin) I have journeyed from the place of over-protective and “worried about everything” parent to “still worried about everything but handling it a lot better” parent.   In great part, this is due to my parenting training with Love and Logic.  

I suppose there is always room for improvement in most everything in life, especially parenting.  The problem with parenting is that we may not realize how much improvement we really need until it’s too late (ie: my teenagers become hellions and I wonder what happened).  The problem with parenting kids with chronic illnesses is that “too late” doesn’t mean just a dented car or some experimentation with booze or sex- it can mean the difference between life and death.   

The struggle to resist one’s overriding and all powerful parental impulses to rescue, hover and (over) protect a beloved child is played out only too well in Finding Nemo just as it is in the homes of millions of families across America.   Sadly, the triumph of overcoming those impulses and achievement of healthy acceptance, is not experienced nearly enough.  The paradox is that it is in letting go of the intense need for control and protection that actually gives the child (and those around him) the freedom to become a hero and to unlock the greatness of spirit inherent within the soul of one who has learned to cope well with suffering.  Just like Nemo! 

We begin Nemo’s story with a happy little fish couple embarking one of life’s greatest adventures- sharing their love and multiplying it by bearing a child or, as in the case of Nemo, bearing 1000’s of fish eggs! After a disastrous start where the mommy fish and all eggs but one get eaten by a big, hungry fish the real story begins with Nemo and his dad “picking up the pieces” of the initial trauma.  To make it all the more poignant, Nemo is born with a deformed, or “lucky” fin.  So, here we have initial trauma and physical disability- a perfect recipe to create an over- protective, hovering parent oozing with over- concern for his son’s welfare and condition.  He limits, rescues, protects and controls Nemo, his expectations are low for Nemo’s ability (due to his disability) and he does not trust Nemo.  Furthermore, Dad has very little sense of humor.  He is somber, worried and agitated about every detail in Nemo’s fishy little life.  In fact, Dad’s life completely revolves around Nemo’s life.  Sound familiar?

The big event in Nemo’s life is his decision to rebel against his father’s controlling, over-protective nature.  No big surprise, there.  Nemo has no choice but to exert his independence in way that is oppositional to his dad’s wishes because Nemo has never had the freedom to make any choices for himself.  What else is an over-protected, over-controlled clownfish to do?   So, he touches the “butt” (boat) in defiance of his dad’s commands just to prove to dad, friends, and himself that he can do it.  And, in doing so (if you haven’t seen the movie), he gets swept up by a scuba diver and appears destined to become a part of a fish collection in a dental aquarium. 

How many kids with chronic illnesses have no choice but to rebel against parental authority by refusing to comply with medical requirements?  If a child is not “allowed”  to make the choice for death, then they cannot make the choice for life.  Parents need to allow their children the possibility of making the “wrong” decision in order to give their child the opportunity (and desire) to make the right decision.  It is best to allow those decisions (or choices) to take place in small, non life threatening ways so that the control over the child’s body is shared through the years, over time.  For example, a parent might say, “Would you like to do your breathing treatment before or after your homework?” or “Would you like your insulin shot in five minutes or ten minutes?” or “Would you like to take your pills with juice or milk?” A lifetime of small choices creates a “savings account” of shared control that can be “cashed in” when it’s time for the big decisions of life- like whether or not to live.        

The movie follows two tracks at this point- the story of the dad’s search and rescue operation for his son and the story of Nemo’s journey of rescuing himself.  The movie becomes the story of a parent struggling to let go, learning to trust and accept and, as a result, the child becoming more than either had ever dreamed possible.   I don’t want to go into every detail of the movie but there are a few more meaningful scenes that are worth mentioning. 

As Nemo starts to “make his own way” around the aquarium, he gets stuck in a filter.  I think it is his fishy life’s first defining moment.  Immediately, the other fish around him leap to rescue him, to pull him out.  But, Gil, the seasoned old master of the aquarium stops them and forces Nemo to rescue himself.  Listen to this:  Nemo (in panic), “Can you help me?”  Gil (calmly and kindly), “No, You got yourself in there, you can get yourself out.”  No rescue, no over protection.  Gil proceeds to tell him how to do it, gives him encouragement and high expectations and Nemo gets unstuck all by himself.  And, Nemo is proud.  He can do it!  Effective parents do not hover, rescue and protect (Helicopter Parents).  Instead, they are Consultant Parents.  They help the child identify the problem, they provide empathy and support, they set appropriately high expectations, they ask good questions and encourage the child to find their own solutions to their problems.  They say, “You got yourself in there, you can get yourself out and I love you no matter what.”

Meanwhile, Dad is learning a few things about himself, too.  As he searches the ocean over for his son, he gets help from many fellow fish and assorted sealife but one in particular joins him on his journey- Dorey.  Dorey is a great example of loving support.  She is steadfast, loyal, concerned, helpful, reflective and best of all, she has a great sense of humor.  She is downright funny.  And, she trusts.  A few words are needed here about a sense of humor.  When you have a child with a chronic illness, a sense of humor is sometimes hard to find.  What is funny about medical treatments, financial burdens, and seeing a child suffer physically and/or emotionally?  But, as we find and develop that sense of humor (and it does take time and practice) we can overcome the adversity and focus on the blessings of life rather than the curses.  It lightens the heart and lessens the burden.  Humor just makes life more fun- for everyone around us.  Poor Marlin has no sense of humor in the beginning but, as a result of his letting go and acceptance of his son (at the end of the movie), his humor becomes well developed, it is clear he actually enjoys life and he reveals his true nature, a clown fish.  But, it took the journey through many trials to bring him there.  Humor on the outside is a reflection of joy on the inside.  Sometimes, we have to fake it till we make it.  But, that’s okay, too.  Humor on the outside can bring joy to the inside.   

Dorey knows how to have fun in the face of adversity- to look on the bright side of life, to trust in the moment.  When they get caught inside of the whale, Dad Marlin is very angry. He is blaming others (including Dorey) for his “dire circumstances.”  Then he hits a wall of despair.  He is so wrapped up in his own plight that he fails to see the love around him, the beauty of God’s creation and the humor of the moment (stuck inside the belly of a whale that Dorey actually talks to in whale-ese).  He sees only his single minded quest- to rescue his son-and it’s impending failure (in his eyes).  Listen to the exchange between Marlin and Dorey- the beginning of his acceptance of the situation in which he finds himself.   Dad: “I promised him I would never let anything happen to him.”  Dorey: “That’s a funny thing to promise.  Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him- then nothing would ever happen to him.  Not much fun for little Nemo.”  Parents who overprotect and rescue their kids steal away their opportunities for life, experience and growth.  They also steal away the child’s chance to become a hero. 

The climax of the movie brings us to the re-uniting of father and son.  Note: Dad did not rescue his son; with help from friends, Nemo finds his own way out of the aquarium and back into the ocean.  When first re-united, Dad immediately adopts his old attitude of protection and control but Nemo’s enduring and compassionate spirit will not allow his father to stop him from rescuing the many fish caught in the gil net and about to be brought to the surface of the water.  Nemo has had a taste of freedom from his father’s well-meaning tyranny.  Nemo has the opportunity to become a hero- not only in his own eyes but in the eyes of the underwater world in which he lives.  His Dad has no choice but to let him go and to trust.  In doing so, Nemo is able to release the hero that was bottled up inside of his soul by his father’s control, over protection and rescue.  And, in releasing that hero, courageously rising to the occasion, Nemo changes the lives of those (many fish) around him. 

I think that deep down inside the soul of every child who suffers with chronic illness is that same hero just bursting to come out.  As parents, we can encourage our children to become that hero, to face life courageously and joyfully in the face of adversity and suffering.  In doing this, we also become a hero- both to our child and to others around us.  In modeling this, we teach our children how to release that hero inside themselves.  It is not an easy journey, but a worthwhile one.   Just ask Nemo.  And, his Dad.

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Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing
 Lehman College, CUNY 10468

Last updated: August 28, 2007