As is the case with so many Disney movies, the central family in TLM is a single parent household. We have to assume that Ariel's mother passed away, when Ariel was quite young. Actually, I don't know enough about merfolklore to even try to figure out how they reproduced. Do you even need a mother and a father? Uhhh...yeah. Let's not go there.
So, let's just assume that King Triton is a widower, and having 7 daughters, I am not surprised that he is a little stressed out. However, some of his parenting choices greatly impact the way Ariel's life plays out.
First of all, Ariel is the youngest child, meaning she was the youngest when their mother died. She seems to be a loner, with her older sisters paying little attention to her. Does anyone find this strange? Fortunately, Ariel's resilient spirit allows her to remain hopeful. Perhaps her hobby of collecting shipwreck artifacts began as a means of dealing with her grief or loneliness. Clearly, it becomes much more than a hobby as her curiosity about the human world grows in intensity.
King Triton does nothing to engage this curiosity. Instead, he bans her from ever rising to the surface of the waters and explodes with anger whenever he finds out she has done so. He has some right to do this; I'm sure there are legitimate dangers for merfolk to come in contact with humans. Knowing humans, we would probably try to conquer them or put them in a zoo. Also, Ariel can be quite annoying, so it's understandable that he would lose his patience with her.
But still, I can't help but wonder if this blatant disapproval only serves as fuel to the fire for Ariel's teenage rebellion. What if King Triton had spent time talking with her and looking at the interesting things she had found and kept stored in her cave? What if he had helped her put her interests to a better use? (See my post "The Not So Modern Princess"). He would have never needed to blow up her cave (clearly not the way to get his message across, if he knew anything about parenting teenagers.) Also, I really think Ariel would not have felt it necessary to go to Ursula, whom she knew was bad, to solve her 'problem.'
I'm not a parent and I'm pretty far removed from teenagers (I'm thankfully not yet old enough to have friends with teenaged kids). But I really do think King Triton makes a few mistakes as a parent. Even towards the end, when he decides to let Ariel go, transforming her into a human so she can marry Prince Eric, I feel a bit torn. Ariel saw how her decisions caused her own near death, not to mention Eric's and her father's. And yet she doesn't seem repentant. She continues to wish away at her love for Eric. The sea king obviously loves his daughter, and it's one of the most touching scenes of the movie. But is enabling her to marry a man she barely knows really the best way of showing his love? I'm really not so sure.
We can't be too hard on King Triton. After all, he's the king of the sea - no small task, he has seven daughters, and they are motherless. It's a tough job. But I think this analysis gives some argument that Ariel may not be completely to blame for her foolish actions throughout the story. With better guidance, I think she had potential for a much more productive life, one that channeled her interests in a more healthy way.
What do you think? (I'm especially curious to hear from those of you who are parents!)