Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 31, 2014

Believing Children

Moving into a discussion of Mary Poppins, one of my students spoke about how he’d always been bothered, both in the book and movie, by what he called the bubble-bursting moments. For example, after the tea party near the ceiling, or the middle-of-the-night visit to the zoo where they talk to animals, Mary Poppins told the children not to be ridiculous, that no one could eat in the air and respectable people like her spend their nights in beds. My student asked why she lied. I couldn’t really answer. Did it have its roots in P.L. Travers’s interest in Zen, a tradition more about riddles than answers, but not one I claim much to understand? This weekend, I asked my friend Jess, a yoga teacher, who told me about aiming for effortless effort, trying without trying. In a state in which we’re always beginning, uncertainty may be the closest we get to truth. And then Jess said, “But that bothered me about Mary Poppins, too. Why shouldn’t children be believed?”


illustration by Mary Shepherd

A favorite moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the way Lucy stands by what she knows happened beyond the wardrobe no matter how much she’s teased, and the good Professor points out to Lucy’s older sister and brother that she has always been honest, so why shouldn’t they listen though she spoke of something that to them seemed incredible? A student who noted he had no problem identifying with Lucy though he’s a guy – “she got into the wardrobe first and she got a dagger as a gift. Cool.” – may have also been drawn to Lucy’s confidence.

And in The Secret Garden, Mary has tantrums for a number of reasons, not all sympathetic, but I’m with her when she is furious when told that she doesn’t hear crying behind a closed door. She is certain of her own ears. I’m sure there are other books that take this as a theme. But where does this leave us with Mary Poppins? Those bubble-bursting moments didn’t bother me much, as for the most part, Jane, though not always Michael, seem to accept them. There are plenty of parts of Mary Poppins not to like. Unlike the sweetened Julie Andrews version, in the book she’s curt, conceited, and perplexing, but she leads us into magic.

Still, so many young readers are Hansel and Gretel, innocently entering forests, perhaps never knowing the back story, like readers or listeners who overhear the conversation between the parents: There’s not enough food. Somebody in the family has to go. And if Hansel or Gretel were to learn and confide about this, would they be believed, or told that parents couldn’t possibly act like that? Children may ask for so little. To be fed, to be safe, to be loved. The movie Mary Poppins takes up this theme in showing how Jane and Michael, who have a good roof and full table, yearn for more. I just listened to an old interview in which the Sherman brothers, who wrote and composed the songs, talk about “Feed the Birds,” which all considered the heart of the movie, with its message about how a need to connect can be met with tuppence, or just a bit of attention. Believe me can be another cry for See me.

I’m writing more about Mary Poppins, a biography of Pamela Travers, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, and Saving Mr. Banks in the next day or two, so if you haven’t heard enough about the sometimes confounding book and author, please stop back by!



  1. I was frustrated by the injustice of that when I was a kid reading the stories to myself. When I read the first Mary Poppins book out loud to my son last year, though, my new theory was that this was all stuff Mary Poppins wasn’t supposed to be doing with the kids – magical adventures are not safe childcare activities! – so the way she got around it was by teaching the kids that they weren’t allowed to talk about it – that they wouldn’t be believed if they did try to talk about it. That hardly makes her a model nanny (to say the least! it’s a very disturbing policy, and one which a lot of abusers use in real life), but FWIW, that was how I read it this time round.

    • How great you can read aloud to your son and offer both the magic and your comforting presence. A few of my students read it like this, too, which may speak more to your lovely selves as mothers or teachers-in-training than Mary Poppins, but it works as well as anything. I’m glad to know you shared this book with your son — not a single student said they’d read it or been read to as children.

  2. My Mary Poppins memory is rusty (my total memory is rusty), but I don’t think I considered Mary Poppins’ protestations lying, rather a kind of self-preservation, as well as a warning to the children not “to tell” so the magic might continue.

    • Rusting is part of reading, forgetting and changing as we go along. And a memory of Mary Poppins can be as true as what we find doing close reading. This works for me!

  3. With Mary Poppins, I never did understand it–I think I mostly put it down to her crankiness. If you say blue, Mary will say green. If you say stop, she’ll say go. And I don’t think it’s just with children. In the other books, I always thought there was fear involved in the denial of what the children saw–fear that the thing they saw MIGHT be real, fear that their imagination would draw them into danger, and–in The Secret Garden–fear that Mary would find out the truth. All these children were, I think–at least in the context of the story–relatively fearless. Which, yes, for them and us, leads to wonderful adventure, but which does carry the possibility of running into the White Witch or letting skeletons out of the closet.

    • I love this reading about fear and adventure, truth and lies and the varieties of secrets. Thank you, Becky!

  4. Perhaps the “don’t be silly” was meant with a knowing wink, an agreement that they were to keep it to themselves. But it is problematic, especially when abusers in the real work tell kids not to tell, and some assure them that even if they do tell, they won’t be believed.

    It reminds me of why Sesame Street reworked things relating to the Snuffleupagus. At first, he kept running into only Big Bird, who told others and was disbelieved. Then the producers realized that the message was “you can tell the truth and no one will believe you”, so now everyone sees Snuffy.

    • I don’t see Mary Poppins as much of a winker, though I don’t think she intended any harm to her charges either. That’s fascinating about the Snuffleupagus. I didn’t know. Good for Sesame Street!

  5. The way I see those situations is: the child knows the truth. The adults are lying (or doing something akin to it by refusing to believe a truth, or by telling a child that what they’ve experienced isn’t real when it is.)
    Part of childhood is discovering that (gasp!) adults lie to you.
    Children’s stories acknowledge that. They take the child’s side.

    • Jenn, that is lovely and so important. Thank you!

  6. Hi Jeannine, I always thought that Mary Poppins was sort of speaking in code when she told the kids the magic things hadn’t happened. In other words, she was telling them that’s how adults see the world and that they had to learn how to function in the adult world-and that it was important for them to keep the magic world a secret so they shouldn’t go around talking about it. I always thought that Michael and Jane guessed that about her.

    • Yes, that’s a good way to think of it. As a happy secret.

  7. Entertaining reading. Good points, well made. In my opinion , you
    are just right.

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