What parents can learn from Mary Poppins

Practically perfect in every way, the strict-but-fun nanny has a lot to teach pressurised parents as they try to juggle it all over Christmas.

What parents can learn from Mary Poppins

“Winds in the east, mist comin’ in, like something’s a brewin’, about to begin...”

Mary Poppins is back in a new movie timed for release just as we swing into Christmas.

Titled Mary Poppins Returns, the sequel to the original 1964 movie that starred Julie Andrews sees the strict nanny back to help the next generation of the Banks family recapture wonder and joy in their lives after they’ve lost someone dear. It stars Emily Blunt as the magical yet practical nanny.

Since the 1960s, at least a couple of generations of children — and their parents — have wished for a nanny, a childminder, like Mary Poppins: someone who could bring a large dash of fun to tedious chores (‘the robin knows a song will move the job along’), who could make up nonsense words at the drop of a hat (remember ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’?) and who could transport children into magical worlds of imagination, yet retain her stature as ‘most fun grown-up ever’ while making pronouncements like ‘time for tea – I will not have my schedule interrupted’.

Mary Poppins’s insights have resonated through the decades – ‘a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’, ‘that’s a pie-crust promise, easily made, easily broken’.

And now she’s back in time for Christmas, for that most festive, often most fraught time of year.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns. Picture: Jay Maidment/Disney
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Emily Blunt, Pixie Davies, Nathanael Saleh, and Joel Dawson in Mary Poppins Returns. Picture: Jay Maidment/Disney

So, as we head into the season of stress and surprises and Santa, what gems of wisdom can modern-day parents glean from the Poppins persona?

In the Banks household of the original movie, the mum was distracted and the disciplinarian dad consumed by his job.

“Time is the greatest gift you can give your child and the essence of Mary Poppins was in providing time to the children. It was the big thing in the old film. She was able to listen to them while Mum was rushing off and Dad was too busy to talk,” says play therapist and CEO of Play Therapy Ireland Bernie Kelleher.

Mary Poppins also gave the children time and opportunity to meet themselves.

“She allowed them to engage in free play, by letting them off into an imaginary world of adventure and imaginative play,” says Kelleher, who points to a wealth of neuro-scientific research that shows free play has a pivotal role in developing children’s mental health.

In free play, they get a chance to exert control, to be in charge, to push boundaries in a way similar to play therapy.

Kelleher sees today’s children having too much structured play – play-dates, after-school clubs – and not enough free play.

“Where’s their downtime? That magical thinking that Mary Poppins encouraged so much, that free play promotes mental health and allows the child process their day’s events.

"Where is the chance for a child to work through their relationships and connections if free play’s curtailed in preference to structured activities?”

Setting boundaries

Systemic family psychotherapist, clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie and Irish Examiner Life/Style columnist Richard Hogan isn’t a fan of the ‘flying nanny’ movie, but his children love her.

Hogan sees an ultra-liberalism creeping into today’s parenting, where boundary-setting is misinterpreted as despotic.

“Parents seem to believe that delivering a boundary almost puts them in the place of dictator, whereas children crave clear concise boundaries – they’re really important for their wellbeing.”

He says many of his generation of parents, raised in the 1980s, grew up in an authoritarian household where perhaps the dad was very strict.

Richard Hogan
Richard Hogan

“They’ve thrown it all out in favour of the will of the child, believing that for a child to be happy there must be no boundaries.

"This gives children an unrealistic view of the world, that the world will shape itself around them, but that won’t happen. In trying to make their children happy, parents are doing the very thing that won’t make them happy.”

One of the common pitfalls parents fall into – which militates against boundary-setting — is parenting from a position of guilt.

“Parents don’t see their children as much as they’d like so they overindulge them, which sets a very negative pattern for the child,” says Hogan.

Rather than opting for a permissive parenting style with no boundaries or an authoritarian one characterised by high expectations of the child and harsh punishment of mistakes, Hogan recommends an authoritative approach — firm, clear boundaries but the child isn’t ‘crushed’ if these are broken.

Very much like the type you have in Mary Poppins, where kids can have fun but also be structured. Boundaries are there to support, not to annihilate the child’s spirit.

Senior clinical psychologist Dr Yvonne Quinn loves Mary Poppins and she’s looking forward to seeing the new movie.

“The thing Mary Poppins is known for is bringing order and organisation to chaos. What the film does really well is show how important boundaries are in raising children — they do best when their world’s predictable and consistent, especially when today’s world is so interconnected and lived at such a fast pace.

"Such a world can feel very overwhelming for little people with no boundaries.”

Quinn says parents sometimes feel they can only set a boundary if they step into an autocratic position.

But, rather like Mary Poppins who tells the Banks children’s dad that she’s ‘kind but extremely firm’, boundary-setting can be done in a loving, kind way: ‘I know you’re sad you can’t get what you want but no means no’.

Hogan believes re-setting boundaries must be done gradually.

Suddenly and absolutely trying to shift all boundaries together won’t work.

“Too much difference is dangerous. Bring in boundaries, one step at a time. Start with one small thing — create a non-negotiable boundary, for example, around the time they must be indoors from playing outside.

"And don’t expect them to be able to follow it for a while.”

Dr Yvonne Quinn says Mary brings order to chaos. Pic: Moya Nolan
Dr Yvonne Quinn says Mary brings order to chaos. Pic: Moya Nolan

Managing expectations

A common parental pitfall at this time of year is setting really high expectations around the perfect Christmas with everyone happy. This vision’s a bit of a fantasy and it’s stress-inducing, says Quinn.

“And when parents are stressed, children feel it – plus stress really impacts how we parent.”

What adds to Christmas stress is the tendency to scrap routine. Quinn recommends retaining routine in large measure.

“It’s OK to let go a little – parents need to model how to be ok with letting routine slip without beating themselves up – but there must be balance. Lack of routine can really upset children and it’s particularly tricky for some.

"If children are tired and overwhelmed by lots of late nights and too much sugar, it’ll impact behaviour. Recognise that too much of something will impact.”

She advises holding onto some daily structures and giving kids notice of what’s happening. How many children this year will get screens as gifts, asks Kelleher.

“TVs for their bedroom, iPads? Over-reliance on screens and video games, prolonged use of them, increases cortisol [stress hormone] in the body.

"Children are playing in a more insular, sedentary way than previous generations. It’s impacting creativity and imagination.”

Parents need to limit screens, she says.

“Structure it into the day as opposed to allowing free use – allow half hour before lunch, half hour after tea, so it only plays a small part in the day.

"Explore other avenues – books, walks, doing jigsaws together, do things as a family rather than going off in different directions. Make pancakes in the morning, cook dinner, get everybody involved.”

Making memories

Which brings us back to what Quinn calls the core value of Christmas — connection. And building relationships with the people you love.

“Ultimately, kids just want to feel connected to the people who matter to them — essentially their families.

Make the holiday about slowing down, creating space to connect and focus on the things that matter within your family.

Christmas is a time for making memories, for redoing traditions and making new ones.

“These behaviours we engage in over and over again connect us to the past, bring us comfort, enrich our bonds with each other and deflect from the materialistic emphasis of the holiday. Traditions help carry each family’s unique story,” says Quinn.

For Hogan, there’s something about Christmas that captures memories in an almost photographic way — and some memories have a poignant edge.

Christmas, he points out, is often a time of firsts, particularly if a family has lost somebody during the year.

“Somebody missing at the table is very poignant. Acknowledge the sadness and teach your child how to deal with loss – it won’t be the same Christmas but it’s about being together differently and celebrating the person we’ve lost, keeping them present.

"So children see Christmas isn’t without its sadness — but it can be joyous too.”

The very word ‘Christmas’ has the power to conjure up magical worlds – of journeys across snow, of open fires, of nature brought indoors in garlands and wreathes, of walks in crisp air.

The giving and receiving of gifts is part of the joy of Christmas but it’s important to focus on that magic we can weave around Christmas.

Mary Poppins — who enchanted carousel horses and transported children into paintings – would most definitely approve.

Mary Poppins Returns is released on December 21.

TOMORROW: Read tips on how to beat the festive frazzle

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