Lessons from Dumbo on How to Parent

I watched Dumbo with the twins recently and it wrecked me. I had just dropped Charlie off at his special needs preschool while the twins stayed with my mom. I walked in as the credits ended and the action began. We pan in on the stork on his cloud, holding the bundle of Dumbo by a thread. That sight, the bag slowly sinking into and then under the cloud while the stork reads his directions (no Google maps for him), was enough to up my pulse. Why wasn’t he watching him? Do the math: the density of an elephant is greater than not equal to the density of a cloud. Oh the differences between watching a film pre and post motherhood.

Sweet Mrs. Jumbo with her babe.

Of course we all know how it plays out. The stork delivers the bundle of joy to his mother, Mrs. Jumbo. All the other mothers clap and whistle as she unwraps the babe. Zoom in for a close up as his ears unfurl like twin flags. Cue the mothers. Gasps. Cries. Tsks. And then the whispers:

“Ears only a mother could love.”

“I wouldn’t eat at the same bale of hay as him.”

“Pretend you don’t see him.”

Other elephants in mid-jeer.

As so he is dubbed Dumbo, rather than Jumbo Jr. as his mother intended. And like only a mother can, she rages at the injustice, the mistreatment of baby Dumbo, when the mothers throw their snide remarks or the boys bully him after the show. And she gets locked up. I had so many balled up tissues by this point that it looked like I’d pulled the stuffing out of the pillow I was hugging. The twins patted my knees and told me it was okay and Dumbo who be okay. Would he though?

Bullies at the circus. You do not want my thought bubble on this.

What kind of movie was this? Granted it was 1941 and people had a different view of what was socially acceptable, but it got me wondering. As a mother to a son with special needs, these moments are in my future. Charlie is almost five. Public school approaches. I cannot be there to fend off the bullies, the ones who might taunt him in his wheelchair or because of his slow speech. My greater fear, more than jeers, is neglect. Will they completely ignore him despite his best efforts to join in? Will he be signing “more” to a group of kids who don’t care to figure out what he’s saying? Will he be alone in a room of twenty?

That’s my mom face too.

I want to be Mrs. Jumbo. I want to dive headfirst into the action and hurl everyone by their coattails who even so much at looks at my son with distain. But that won’t get me any farther than it got her. So I’ll have to be the mouse. You remember the mouse, right? The one who teaches Dumbo to believe in himself. The one who teaches him to fly. Charlie’s going to need to find his own independence. He’s going to have to deal with bullying when/if it comes because I cannot always be there. It’s the same reason you can’t help an egg hatch. They’ve got to build their strength somehow.

Who would dare to pick on this?

I’m going to have to make myself smaller, not larger, to help him navigate his future, one where I move to the periphery. This is a truth for all parents. We all have to learn to let go in the right increments. If their goal as kids is to find freedom in who they are, ours should be to let them.

Man though, I wish those mother elephants had gotten kicked off the moving train.


If you want to hear more of my thoughts on bullying (I have plenty), I wrote up an incident that still gives me the shakes when Charlie got bullied in the grocery store…by another mother. Read it here: When the Parent is the Bully. I’d be interested to hear how you would have handled it.

Thanks Meg for letting me recap!