This article was written by Duaa Haggag, LPC. It was reviewed by Issra Killawi, BA, and Madiha Tahseen, PhD.
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Nothing prepares you for that moment when you first realize that you are now a parent. The sheer excitement, love, and weight of responsibility can be overwhelming! We think, how will I learn to keep this child safe, healthy, and kind?
Oftentimes, we see parenting as a one-way process in which we, as adults, are raising our children. But with time, many of us come to recognize that our children, in a sense, are also raising us. Through parenting a small person, we realize that we too have lessons to learn and adjustments to make. So what if we perceived parenting as a God-given means to be more empathic, well-rounded humans ourselves?
One of the best movies to help parents reflect on this idea is Disney-Pixar’s oldie but goodie, Finding Nemo (2003). Here are some lessons we can learn about transformative parenting from this classic:
1. Our Past Influences How We Deal With Our Kids
The movie’s opening scene presents us with quite a traumatic experience – the death of Nemo’s mother. Marlin, Nemo’s father, makes an endearing but unrealistic promise that serves as his parenting mantra: “I promise I will never let anything happen to you.”
Before the trauma of his wife’s death, Marlin is depicted as a happy, adventurous character wanting his family to live on the edge of the coral reef, experiencing all of its amazing opportunities. This is quite a contrast to his outlook on Nemo’s first day of school. Marlin is reluctant, afraid, and overly anxious about Nemo going out in the world. He tries to put limitations on his son, even suggesting that they postpone school to the following year. He no longer has his zest for life, grudgingly waking up in the morning, incapable of holding interesting conversations with his adult peers.
Nemo, on the other hand, is excited and eager – a lot like how his dad was before his traumatic experience. We see him as a loving kid who, despite his wish for adventure, respects his dad’s rules and does not seek to disappoint him.
In the school trip boat scene, we notice how Marlin’s anxiety overpowers his ability to actively listen and trust his son. He belittles him in front of his friends, jumps to conclusions, and makes blanket statements about who his son is or can be. By projecting some of his deepest fears onto his son, Marlin does not realize that he is suffocating Nemo and hence pushing him to be outwardly defiant and say things he may not truly mean (I hate you!).
Sometimes, we blame our children for their unruliness when it is our behavior that is pushing our children to act a certain way. If we step back and change our approach, we may find that our children’s behavior changes too.
(Related: How can I let go of my trauma in healthy ways?)
2. Mistakes Allow For Growth And Learning, So Trust Your Children And Give Them Ownership
On his quest, Marlin discovers that not wishing for “anything” to happen to his son and preventing him from ever failing was a disservice to him. Do we do the same by either over-protecting or demanding perfection from our children? The Prophet (saws) says, “Every son of Adam commits sin, and the best of those who commit sin are those who repent.”
(Sunan Ibn Majah) We understand from this that Allah does not expect us to be perfect, but to continually strive to be better. This process of repentance is what brings us closer to Him, and this is the same attitude we should have for our children. Mistakes are not only a source of growth for our children (that’s how we all learn), but a place where we can foster loving connections by guiding and assuring them.
What a transformation for Marlin when he allows his son to save Dory from the fisherman’s net! Despite the risks involved, he trusted his son to problem-solve and take ownership of the situation, simply guiding and supporting him in the process. This gives Nemo the confidence he needs to eventually succeed and initiates a very different relationship dynamic, one where both Nemo and Marlin publicly praise each other.
How many times do we rush to save our youth from doing things “wrong,” be it at home, school, or the masjid? We often micro-manage their activities and projects, not truly giving them the space to figure things out on their own. When given that trust, youth feel empowered, and quickly acquire the skills to get the job done. This idea of allowing youth ownership in their decisions, despite their mistakes, is depicted beautifully in the story of the Taif Siege. When the Prophet (saws) and a group of youth remained under siege for more than two weeks, the Prophet was inclined to leave. The youth, in their zeal, refused to leave without gaining victory. Rather than use his authority to force them to retreat, the Prophet (saws) allowed them the opportunity to continue. They soon realized after the wounding of many soldiers that this was not a wise decision and only then returned to the Prophet, indicating the suitability of his initial decision. By allowing our youth to take charge and trust them in the process, we give them the opportunity to gain the experience and wisdom they need to establish their communities.
3. Even When They Reject It, Youth Crave Structured Support
Despite touching the boat to defy Marlin, the first one Nemo calls for help when in danger is his dad. Nemo might have been angry, but deep down, he had conviction that Marlin would be there when he needed it.
Adolescence is a time where young people strive to establish their identity, often through exploration. While it is normal and healthy for youth to desire (and demand!) the space to become more independent, research shows that they still crave the security of a loving adult who is there for them when they mess up.
Consider this inherited wisdom from the Islamic tradition about raising children: “Play with them for the first 7 years; teach them for the next 7 years; advise them for the next 7 years .” As our kids get older, our roles should shift from that of caregiver to coach. Yes, we must allow room for exploration, but under the guided influence of clear boundaries and expectations. We should not shy away from laying down the rules just because our youth challenge them. They will undoubtedly push back at this stage of life, but internally they want guidance and the feeling that someone cares enough to help them through their tribulations. According to Search Institute’s research on young people, having a trusted and reliable grown-up in their life serves as one of 40 developmental assets that help young people grow to be confident, responsible, and caring adults.
4. Affirm Your Child, Despite Their Faults
Nemo’s unique fin was dubbed “lucky” by his father. Yet, we often see moments where Marlin doesn’t see the fin as lucky at all but a hindrance to Nemo’s potential. How often do we highlight the faults of our children, failing to see the many positive aspects of their personality? Our children are smarter than we like to admit and can often detect disdain in our words and actions. Our youth’s brains are wired to fulfill the messages we give them, so let us be careful in the way we describe them. Sometimes it takes a bit of creative tweaking!
When the companion Ibn Abbas was young, the Prophet (S) took the time to share the brilliance he foresaw in him. He hugged him and whispered in his ear that one day Allah would make him a learned man in his religion. Ibn Abbas took his words to heart and later became a great scholar of his time! To this day, we benefit from his many narrations.
Often one of the best ways to practice self-care is to become more aware of our behavioral patterns as parents and take the necessary steps towards mindfulness. Our children don’t expect us to be perfect; they are content when they see our love through our continual striving. Notice the pride Nemo has for his father when he sees how confident and brave Marlin has become.
It certainly is not easy, but with the support of loyal companions who remind us to “just keep swimming,” and the unwavering belief that it is Allah who is the Ultimate Guide and Protector, we will be capable of creating loving, impactful relationships with our children. This article is part of The FYI’s Meaning Through Movies Series. For more content like this, click here. For more resources from The FYI, follow us on social media and subscribe to our newsletter here.