King Triton, Pendulums & Authoritative Parenting

I have loved Disney’s The Little Mermaid for as long as I can remember.  I loved the music, the characters, and the story.  Part of Your World is still my go-to Disney karaoke song.  I became especially  sentimentally attached to The Little Mermaid at age nine, during my tomboy phase, after my great-aunt Debra gave me a Little Mermaid diary.  She said that it reminded her of me because I had red hair, loved to sing, and wanted to be something I wasn’t (again, tomboy phase).   I love the childhood nostalgia I experience when I watch The Little Mermaid, now as an adult.  But, as an adult, I’ve noticed a few things about the film that I hadn’t during my childhood.  And I have to admit that I am disappointed with some of the messages, the parenting, and the horrible logic occasionally demonstrated by the characters.

The following is an example of poor parenting and poor logic taken from a scene at the end of the film, right before King Triton restores Ariel to a human form to be reunited with Prince Eric.  I have recorded what is actually said in the scene, and in italics I have included how I interpret some of those lines when they are spoken.

King Triton: She really does love him, doesn’t she, Sebastian?

She really is infatuated with him, isn’t she, Sebastian?

Sebastian: Well, it’s like I always say, your majesty; children got to be free to lead their own lives.

Well, it’s like I am about to say for the first time, your majesty; teenagers with little life experience and who prove their lack of good judgment by selling their voice and soul to a witch in order to physically changes their bodies for a chance at attracting a man she has never met, should be free to make their own choices.  Sure, if you hadn’t gotten involved she’d be a sea slug in the witch’s lair or the entire ocean could belong to someone evil.  But, hey, let her make her own choices.

King Triton: You, always say that?

Sebastian: <looks charming>

King Triton: Well then, I guess there’s just one problem left.

Well, if I am to use the same caliber of logic as everyone else, then I ought to assume that infatuation is love, and consent to what my 16 year-old daughter wants rather than consider what is in her best interest.  But there is still one drawback that I’m willing to admit to.

Sebastian: And what’s that, your majesty?

King Triton: How much I’m going to miss her.

I am going miss my teenaged daughter after I change her into another species, send her off to marry a stranger I know virtually nothing about (and with whom she has never had a spoken conversation), especially since I will probably never get to see her again since we will live in different ecosystems.

Is it just me, or is King Triton not thinking this through very well?

It is interesting to consider how at the beginning of the film, King Triton’s disciplinary style was rather harsh.  Okay, extremely harsh.  He yelled at her and destroyed all of her valuables.  His parenting style in that exchange could be characterized as authoritarian (high control, low warmth).

However, by the end of the movie, as illustrated in the scene transcribed above, his parenting style has changed to be permissive (low control, high warmth), authoritarianism’s opposite.    Neither style is particularly healthy.  According to research, children benefit most from parents who are authoritative.  In this style, a parent has a high level of control, alongside a high level of warmth.

It is reasonable that King Triton, after recognizing that his authoritarian approach elicited rebellion and acting out, would want to change his strategy.  And logically, he would want to do the opposite of what had failed.  Unfortunately, he still wasn’t acting in the better interest of his child.

Think about it.  He just changed his sixteen-year-old daughter’s physical appearance and gave her his blessing to leave home and marry someone that she met three days ago and has never even had a real conversation with.  This is not healthy parenting behavior.

Similarly, many parents make the error of acting opposite of something that they know didn’t work–perhaps it didn’t work with another child, or perhaps it was hurtful to them when their parents used a particular parenting strategy or style with them.  So they swing from one extreme end of the pendulum to the other.  They wisely avoid doing what they understand doesn’t work, but end up inflicting a different flavor of hurtfulness by going too far in the opposite direction.  There is a need for wisdom and balance, rather than reactive, oppositional, or guilt-driven responses.

I realize that it would have made for a lame ending to the movie, but it would have been better parenting if King Triton and Ariel had had a heart-to-heart conversation and if there had been consequences associated with her reckless behavior.  Those consequences should not have been destructive to her property or their relationship as was the case in his earlier reaction.  But to have no boundaries leads to no safety.

Take-away lessons:

  1. Don’t adopt a parenting strategy of  “always do the exact opposite of what hasn’t worked”
  2. Strive to be an authoritative parent.
  3. If your sixteen-year-old wants to marry an older man she just met, don’t finance and host a wedding the next day and then send them off to live on the moon.  It’s not good parenting, no matter what Disney movies might say.  Just because something makes a good story, doesn’t mean it leads to a happy ending.

The Parable of the Gopher Hole: Looking Beneath the Surface

gopher hole

I looked out the kitchen window of my childhood home in Mesa, Arizona and noticed something unusual.  The landscape of our normally flat backyard was marred with several small dirt hills scattered across the yellow-green grass.  The culprit?  A gopher.  I first noticed this phenomenon as a child, and at the time, I thought I knew the solution: we needed to get out the shovel, fill in all the holes, and level out the dirt.  Surely, that would solve the problem.  The holes would be gone, and the vermin wouldn’t have a hole to poke their heads up through.

But, as you are probably already thinking, little-kid-Allison’s solution wouldn’t be especially effective.  Yes, it would level out the yard, but the gopher still be there.  And he (or she) would soon create new holes.  The real problem wasn’t the visible holes and dirt hills.  Those were the symptoms.  The real problem lay under the surface.

Problem or Symptom?
Oftentimes, individuals, couples, or parents come to therapy citing a specific problem that they want to see “fixed”.  They are usually noticeable things.  Perhaps it is a pesky behavior that an individual can’t seem to kick after years of trying alone.  Perhaps it is a fight that a couple seems to rehash over and over and over again.  Maybe it is a list of complaints burned-out parents have about a misbehaving child.  People come in thinking that “the problem” is the problem, and that want to find a simple solution.

However, many of the problems that people present in therapy are like gopher holes.  The problem they see isn’t actually the problem.  It is a symptom.  Some people spend years trying to resolve issues themselves without ever realizing that they are only ever attending to the symptom.  They have just been filling in gopher holes.  No wonder they are exhausted and frustrated, and no wonder they are still having issues!

  • Perceived Problem: 16-year-old Johnny is getting bad grades at school and is acting out at home.  If those were the problems, the solution would be a tutor and a behavioral modification program.  But, what if these are symptoms of Johnny dealing with his parents’ arguing?  Maybe acting out is a pressure release to his distress and underperforming is his way of getting his parents to work together on a common goal: helping him.  In this case, the real solution is to work with the parents and the family to decrease conflict and stress in the home.
  • Perceived Problem: Rick, isn’t contributing to household responsibilities.  Further, he commonly withdraws from his wife April’s attempts at talking about the issue.  April thinks that Rick doesn’t care about what is important to her.   But, what if he does care, but feel a great sense of shame that he forgets to do his part?  When April wants to talk and Rick withdraws, he isn’t avoiding her because he doesn’t care, he is avoiding her because he does care and doesn’t want to face her disapproval.  In this case, the solution lies, in part, in helping create a more secure attachment between the couple.
  • Perceive Problem: Lately, 10-year-old Julie’s hasn’t been eating very much, is constantly fatigue and has been in a mopey mood.  If these were seen as the problem, a parent may withhold privileges if Julie doesn’t eat, and make her go to bed early.  They may eventually go to the doctor to get her on antidepressants.  However, what if these are symptoms Julie being a victim of bullying at school?  To achieve real change, there will need to be a change in her school environment and in how she is able to perceive herself.
If you are experiencing a problem, ask yourself, “Is this a symptom, or is this the underlying problem?”  Sometimes, to achieve real and lasting change, you have to go beneath the surface.

What Do I Do if I Don’t Know the Underlying Problem?
Take time to assess the situation.  Think about when the problem began, and what was going on in your life and relationships at that time.  You may be able to figure out the bigger picture of what is happening.  In some cases, you may benefit from seeking the help of a helping professional such as an individual therapist or a marriage and family therapist.  They have been trained to discern between symptoms and underlying issues, and they have the training to help you and your family achieve your goals.