I eagerly awaited the release of Pixar’s latest creation Finding Dory. Coming at it from a psychological background, I’m always intrigued by the profound family-oriented messages their movies convey.
To my surprise, most critics didn’t quite get this movie. Many of them spoke to the visual and humoristic nature of the film and the likeability of its characters. I could barely find any movie reviews that highlighted one of the key considerations of this film -- the way in which we choose to parent.
I was immediately drawn to Charlie and Jenny, Dory’s parents, and their effectiveness in parenting a child with cognitive challenges. The way it was referred to in the film was “short-term memory loss” or as Dory sweetly referred to it as “short-term remember-y loss.” I found myself smitten with her parents’ sensitivity, unconditional love and nurturing natures. Throughout the film this was exemplified, both by her interactions with them and by her encounters with others along her journey.
Dory chronically worried that she would forget her parents. Her parents consistently reminded her that they would never forget her and that she would never forget them. They encouraged her to tell whoever she meets about her short-term memory loss. Dory didn’t seem to feel stigmatized by her challenge but was taught and made to feel that she was valued and entitled to the assistance and understanding of others.
Charlie and Jenny exercised a great amount of patience with Dory. They continually reassured her that she could do whatever she set her mind to. They encouraged her to not worry about her memory and provided her with an inspirational motto to encourage her; they lovingly repeated “Just keep swimming.”
Throughout the film her parents remained very nurturing and supportive despite their worry. In a poignant and emotionally moving scene Jenny cried to her husband and expressed her deep concern about Dory. She sobbed in secret to avoid Dory catching wind of it. The pain of her worry was raw and deep and she consciously didn’t want Dory to carry the burden of responsibility for her distress.
Charlie and Jenny did not micromanage her but rather encouraged her independence. They provided her with opportunities to function independently but also provided her with security to ensure her safety when it was in their control. Dory learned to rely and trust her instincts despite her short-term memory loss. She learned to have self-belief and work from her strengths and within her limitations. This led to her inevitable resourcefulness of finding her way back to her parents. She learned through her parents to take note of cues, notably the purple shell and shells in general.
The film appropriately ends with Dory finding her parents. Charlie and Jenny, were mindfully in the moment during their reunion. They weren’t distracted by frustration at themselves for losing Dory and at Dory for getting lost. Her parents expressed that she found them in her “own Dory way.” They reinforced that she used good instincts by following the shells. They took every opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate her uniqueness and strengths.
The film genuinely highlighted the burden of worry we as parents carry when we take on parenting. There is undoubtedly a special set of tribulations when parenting children with cognitive, physical, and emotional challenges. In one study, the chronic stress by mothers of autistic children was shown to be similar to that of combat soldiers.[i]
Depending on the extent of children’s needs, parents can be in need of supports to help their children with their daily activities, finances, transportation, health care, mental health services, early intervention and prevention services, etc.[ii] Parents can be left feeling strained on many levels which can inevitably impact on the couple relationship and relationship among siblings and the overall family[iii].
As parents we are often left concerned about our children’s safety and security, sociability, employability and independence among many other things. Charlie and Jenny had the right idea about parenting by fostering self-determination and independence despite worrying about Dory.
They made sure that Dory understood her disability and conveyed that it didn’t mean that there was something fundamentally wrong with her. They taught her to be resilient, to never give up on herself, be proud of who she was, that she has their unconditional love because of her intrinsic value and that she should strive for what she wants and believes in.
As parents, we always have to strike a balance between being protective and support risk taking. This is always renegotiated as our children mature and develop. Charlie and Jenny were effective role models. They taught us to guide our children toward solving their own problems and making their own choices but also sensitively make them aware of their limitations and potential barriers that they may come across. This film is thought provoking and leads us to think more about our parental worry, negotiating our children’s self-determination and acceptance over our children’s limitations -- all critical topics to consider in regard to our parenting.
[i] Seltzer, M. M., Greenberg, J. S., et al. (2010). Maternal cortisol levels and behavior problems in adolescents and adults with ASD. J Autism Dev Disord., 40(4): 457-469.
[ii] National Council on Disability. (2012). Supporting parents with disabilities and their families in the community. https://www.ncd.gov/publications/2012/Sep272012/Ch13.
[iii] Norlin, D. and Broberg, M. (2013). Parents of children with and without intellectual disability: Couple relationship and individual well-being. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 57: 552-566.