It should be obvious that I love Mary Poppins, given the name of my blog. I mean, she is practically perfect in every way. As a little girl, it was the music, the dancing, the magic that captivated me. I could not be more proud that my son became obsessed with Mary Poppins a few months back (a wonderful respite in my day from Star Wars, superhero battles, and dinosaur roars). It was his movie of choice every week for family movie night for a couple of months and still makes its way in there from time to time. Each time we watch it, I am reminded now as an adult there’s a new reason this classic is still one of my favorites. Watching it now as a mom, I see it with a different perspective.
As a little girl, it always puzzled me why Mary Poppins left. She did such a fine job caring for Jane and Michael. But now I see she didn’t really come just for them, she came for Mr. and Mrs. Banks. She came to restore the family.
As we were going through our adoption process, we were required to do training, and we chose to do Empowered to Connect. When most people hear we had to go through training, they think we were being trained on how to deal with the kids, the potential issues we might face parenting a child not biologically ours. But we did more learning and making sense of our own pasts and histories than anything else. Of course we were trained intensely on how trauma effects the brain, how to look at the child holistically and with compassion, and a crash course in Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), but amidst all that, at every turn, we had to look at ourselves and what we brought to the table. We all have baggage and that baggage effects our parenting. Here’s how:
Essentially, there are 4 different parenting styles, as elaborated below.
Authoritarian: This style of parenting is heavy on structure, low on nurture. They like rules, control, view discipline as punishment and believe every misbehavior should be met with a consequence. They like a well-ordered home. Misbehavior challenges the structure and order, so the primary goal is to change the behavior and develop full compliancy.
Permissive: This parenting style is high nurture, but low structure. It’s all about the child, and many times, overextending grace. There are little to no rules or boundaries, it’s all about whatever the child wants and needs. Every misbehavior is seen as a battle that doesn’t need to be fought. Just let “kids be kids”.
Authoritative: This style of parenting has a balance of equal parts high structure and high nurture. They see discipline as teaching, connect before correcting, and look underneath the behavior to see what’s really going on. Behavior, good and bad, is seen as communication, and they believe it is their job to meet the underlying needs in order to change the behavior.
Neglectful: This parenting style isn’t really parenting at all. There’s no structure, no nurture, mostly parents involved in themselves and pay little to no attention to the child and their needs. Because needs routinely go unmet, children are left to fend for themselves and operate in a state of survival mode.
Now when I watch Mary Poppins, I know she came because there were 2 different parenting styles going on in the home. You’ve got George Banks who definitely has an authoritarian parenting style. Truly, he sings an entire song about it when we meet him as a character in one of the first scenes of the movie. His song is all about his routine, his schedule, his expectations on work, home, life in general. He’s so involved in his own structure, that it takes him a good 5 minutes to realize his children are missing when he gets home from work.
Then, you’ve got Winnifred Banks on the opposite end of the spectrum, a permissive parenting style. I’m sure she did want women’s rights, but I’m pretty sure she was mainly involved in that endeavor to escape the constant pull of control from Mr. Banks and chaos from her children. When the children come down with their idea of an advertisement for a new nanny, you see Mr. Banks flabbergasted at the complete waste of time to listen to such childish nonsense (control, structure), and you see Mrs. Banks excited, completely intent on her children and shushing her husband. When they are sent to bed, her response is “they were only trying to help, after all, they’re only children”.
Then, Mary Poppins comes to town, a total boss who flies in from the clouds with a badass carpetbag, an umbrella that talks, and the cutest hat. When she arrives on the scene, she comes into the Banks home with complete confidence, assertiveness, and authority. Mary Poppins is the epitome of an authoritative parenting style. And it completely throws authoritarian George Banks for a loop.
How Authoritative Parenting Restores Balance
Remember, authoritative parenting is both high structure and high nurture. We see this quickly in Mary Poppins when she arrives in the nursery with Jane and Michael. She wastes no time. She sees the place is a complete wreck, but the children did request in their advertisement to play games. So what does she do? She compromises, she gets what she wants (a clean nursery) and gives what they want (a game), and she does this before taking them on a Jolly Holiday in the park. She playfully engages. There are no threats (if you don’t clean the play room right now there’s no going to the park). Instead she tells them gently they are going to play a game, also known as “let’s tidy up the nursery.” Jane and Michael, a bit confused, ask her how that’s a game. And her response is for them to “find the fun” hiding in the task. And she provides it with a cheery song and a bit of magic, doing it together, connecting through play.
This is the whole concept of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Finding fun and play in a task no one wants to do. You see her do this throughout the whole movie, and it’s not just with the children. It’s in all of her interactions, including with Mr. Banks. She meets him where he is, but also pushes for change without him even knowing it, like when he means to fire her because of what he perceives as a “lack of order” on her part, and then at the end of the conversation he’s agreed to take the children on an outing to his work. She pushes for him to connect with his children, and she knows they will challenge his idol of order.
Here’s the thing, friends: we see in the movie that Mary Poppins’ presence is changing the whole vibe of the household. In the breakfast scene mid-movie, all of a sudden, Ellen and Cook who once fought “like cats and dogs” start getting along perfectly. Though we don’t see her transformation in the same way we see with Mr. Banks, we do see Winnifred being more present and involved inside of the home. Instead of the spacey mom looking to escape that we see in the beginning, we see her at home, involved in the day to day, knowing what’s going on not just with the hired help, but knowing what’s going on with her children, and acknowledging the change that Mary Poppins has brought about. But Mr. Banks, we see is having a much harder time accepting this transition of balance. While everyone else is uplifted, George Banks is seen stressed, annoyed, and preoccupied. His control is being challenged. This “order” he thought he had is no longer his.
I think many of us tend to err on the side of authoritarian parenting, demanding respect, order, control, perfection. But, using Mr. Banks as an example, did he ever truly have order and control in his family and home? His children had literally run away and were brought back by the police when we first met the family on Cherry Tree Lane. The overturn of nannies…well, they lost count. His wife was escaping the home without his knowing and sneaking away to events she knew he wouldn’t approve of, Ellen and Cook were at each other’s throats, everyone was complaining, and two sweet kids were lost in the mix. I would hardly call that order.
Too often, this authoritative, trust-based parenting style is wrongly seen as permissive. When Jonathan and I got married, even before we went through this training (and both of us scored high on the authoritarian grid, with a splash of extra nurture for me), one thing I was very clear about was giving our children voice. I had seen too many kids with authoritarian parents grow up to either not remotely know how to think for themselves because they were raised to just obey without question (I call that obedience robots), or they went completely AWOL when they left the home and didn’t have all those rules and expectations anymore. It was challenging for us as we learned that authoritative parenting allowed things like kids asking for a compromise, unwanted behavior wasn’t met with an immediate consequence or punishment like taking away a favorite toy. To us, that felt like a challenge to our authority.
But look at the relationship the kids had with Mary Poppins. And I know, she wasn’t their mom, she was their nanny. But with the amount of time she cared for Jane and Michael, she was definitely their primary caregiver. We hear about the many times they ran away or played tricks on other nannies that were authoritarian like their father, but they don’t do that with Mary Poppins. They respect her authority. They do challenge her and argue with her, like when they don’t want to take their medicine or go to bed or leave a visit, but they wholeheartedly believe that Mary Poppins is for them, loves them, even when they mess up.
One scene that now breaks my heart is the belief they had of their father. We see this in the scene leading up to the famous Step In Time sequence, where Jane and Michael cause a scene at the bank, ran off again (out of fear), and run into their pal Burt, completely upset. As they unpack what happened, Burt has to convince those kids that their dad does indeed love them. Behavior is communication, and that goes both ways in the parent-child relationship. Mr. Banks thought that he was communicating love through his demands of control and order, but what he was actually communicating to his children was that order and structure were more important than they were. They didn’t feel seen, heard, or (at times) even loved. They believed, based on the behavior communicated, that it was conditional. If they behaved well, kept order, and didn’t make any mistakes, he loved them.
Letting Go And Becoming Authoritative
I love watching Mr. Banks’ journey, and we only see a smidgen of it. What happens when all of that control is stripped from him? When he loses his job and his household is more influenced by the nanny than by him? He loosens his grip on life and opens his hands. He hears a joke and laughs. He uses a funny word when he doesn’t know what else to say. He skips and dances home. He mends his kiddos’ broken kite, and takes them out to fly it, all together as a family. That’s when Mary Poppins knows her work is done, when it’s no longer her who changed the vibe of the home, it’s the man leading the home who is changing it. She knew he and Mrs. Banks understood authoritative parenting, and it was time to go and let them be a thriving family.
Now, as I watch as a mom who understands what it means to be an authoritative parent, the scene at the end that once confused me as a little girl, is now the sweetest.
Her umbrella says “it seems they love their father more than they love you.” And her response?
“That’s as it should be,” as she looks on watching that family, balance and connection being restored.
I hope all of this rambling about Mary Poppins and parenting styles has challenged you and encouraged you like it has me. Know this, it is continuous work. Mary Poppins didn’t stay until it was perfected, because there’s no such thing as the perfect parent. She stayed until the wind changed, old patterns and perspectives were broken and new ones embraced.
It is still easy for me to slip into the “old ways” of authoritarian, going for consequences instead of compromises, demanding with empty threats that only lead to fear and more unwanted behavior instead of leveling and matching my response to the behavior, always starting with playful engagement. Whenever our home seems out of balance and unwanted behavior is higher than usual, I have to turn back and look at myself, not just my child. What is my own behavior communicating to him? Have I reverted back to authoritarian, or (at times) permissive because I’m tired? Sometimes, friends, we have to stop looking at our kids, and start looking at ourselves. Because as parents, it starts with us.
So go channel your inner Mary Poppins today. I know she’s in there, waiting to come out. You just may just have to dig through your own carpetbag first.
Enjoyed this read? I’d love to send you more resources to go deeper. Sign up here to join the SOJ community and get a virtual coffee date in your inbox each week, no spam allowed.