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Top 5 Mary Poppins-inspired parenting tips

The Mary Poppins approach to child-rearing is both practical and magical

A little encouragement from across the fence



When my daughter Maddie was 3, she refused to go to bed until we put on the "Mary Poppins" video and played the scene where the chimney sweeps dance across the rooftops of London. “Step in time, step in time,” she’d insist, and she’d watch with rapt attention until the last sweep had scampered into the park and Bert had clicked his heels and wandered off into the night.

I was never sure why that scene had such a hold on her, but the movie was just as much a part of my own childhood as it was hers, and it still has a special place in my heart. So it was with a mix of anticipation and trepidation that I went to see the recent sequel: "Mary Poppins Returns."

We went to an early-evening show at our little neighborhood theater, and I was surprised to see that there were no kids or young families there. It was a small audience, and most of the people were about my age. Clearly this wasn’t an anomaly, because half the trailers were for movies that seemed directly targeted at my demographic. I worried that this might be some stiff, adult-ified version of Mary Poppins, unrecognizable to a true devotee like me.

Luckily, I needn’t have worried. The new movie paid generous tribute to the original, sprinkling in countless references to my favorite scenes while offering up new songs, new characters and a new story to a brand-new generation of Poppins fans. Still, as I walked out of the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder who those fans might be.

Parents and kids have changed a lot since I was little, even since Maddie was. Moreover, the ways they’ve changed have pushed parenting styles in a distinctly un-Poppins-like direction. Would today’s audience find Mary’s child-rearing techniques quaint and obsolete? Impractical and unfeasible? After watching her in action again after all these years, I think there’s a lot we could learn from her. In fact, she may have exactly the spoonful of sugar that many of us have been searching for all along.

I’ll let you decide. Here, in my opinion, are Mary Poppins’ top five parenting tips:

1. Don’t put up with nonsense.

To the extent that they are able, children have the same responsibilities as everyone else. They must do their chores and clean up their messes. They must be courteous and respectful. They mustn’t go around with their mouths open. We are not a codfish.

2. Allow as much nonsense as possible.

The world is much bigger than adults think it is. Children know this. In a child’s mind, nothing is stopping us from floating to the ceiling in a fit of giggles. An idyllic landscape from a sidewalk chalk drawing is as real and ripe for exploration as any other place. Dancing penguins are a distinct possibility. Anything can happen if you let it.

3. Do what’s best for the children.

There is no glory in child-raising. Don’t expect prizes or rewards, or even much gratitude.   Your goal is to raise them into the best possible people they can be, so they won’t need you anymore. When that happens, and the wind changes, open your umbrella and go. You’ve done your job.

4. Do what’s best for yourself.

Good parenting is not an act of martyrdom. You have a right to an occasional day off; demand it. You have things you need to get done; do them. You care about your health and appearance; tend to them and take pride in them. You have a right to all these things, and you can claim them without apology. Make that quite clear. Never explain anything.

5. Parenting is what you do, not who you are.

In the end, raising children is a job. It’s an important job, but a job nonetheless. It is not your identity. When the children are asleep in their beds, nodding and dreaming, you don’t cease to exist. When they stop needing you, you don’t become a lesser human being. Look in the mirror: what do you see? You may not be practically perfect in every way, but you’re much more than a mere extension of your children.

Talking umbrellas, up-sliding banisters and bottomless carpet bags aside, the Mary Poppins approach to child-rearing is based on a few straightforward ideas: clear standards of behavior, unfettered imagination, and good boundaries. Those are useful tools that can help us create a world for our kids and ourselves that’s both practical and magical.

Now that’s a jolly holiday if I’ve ever seen one.

Jeff Lee never smells of barley water in Seattle.

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