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A real nanny’s tips for recreating Mary Poppins’ magic

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun."

A real nanny’s tips for recreating Mary Poppins’ magic

The original “Mary Poppins” movie is an obvious family classic. But for me, a nanny with over a decade of experience, this movie has always been more than a movie. It’s whimsical and musical and visually stunning, but there are so many lessons about childhood and caregiving in each scene.

Though the original was released in 1964, so many of the quotes and themes still ring true today. No doubt it’s why Disney is releasing “Mary Poppins Returns” — the magic of caring for children never fades. That’s why I’m sharing some of my favorite quotes here, as well as how I bring Mary Poppins’ magic with me to each family’s home.

This scene in the movie shows Mary Poppins talking to the Banks children in their nursery, trying to get them to clean up their mess. “In every job that must be done,” she says, “there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.” When it comes to “finding the fun” in getting kids to do their homework, put away their laundry or do whatever age-appropriate chore is necessary, nannies have to get a little… creative. (Unfortunately, we can’t use magic like Mary Poppins does.)

With my charges, I often initiate a race, where the first person to finish their chores is rewarded with something like by getting to pick the movie we watched. Other times we create a human train to get all the toys from the play area to the toy box, with one person picking up the toy, one person carrying it and the last person putting it away.

The takeaway: Doing chores this way always ended in giggles, but it got the job done (tantrums notwithstanding), and it was all because we added in that element of fun.

“Never judge things by their appearance … even carpetbags.”

Are you even a nanny if you haven’t coveted Mary Poppins’ infamous carpetbag? Who wouldn’t want to be able to carry every single thing they’d ever need in a small, overnight bag? But I digress. There is, as usual with Mary Poppins, a strong message in her arrival scene. Her charges, who first laugh at her unusual choice in accessory, are amazed as she pulls out everything she needs to make her room her own. Simply by showing them what her bag was capable of, she proves that their snap judgments limited what they thought was possible.

The takeaway: There are so many opportunities to teach kids to not judge anything by its appearance, from the “gross” broccoli on their plate to the differently abled child on the playground. Not everything is as it seems and it’s important to show kids how to explore what something or who someone really is before turning your back based on how they look.

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

This is the scene where Mary Poppins dances around, trying to get her charges to rest enough to take their nasty cold medicine. Of course, this has a literal translation for both nannies and parents. How many times have you had a sweet treat or cup of juice by your side, trying to coax your kiddo into taking the medicine that will undoubtedly make them feel better? This scene for me, though, has had a powerful impact on how I talk to children — and even adults.

When you’re helping people raise their kids, there are always hard conversations and situations that arise. One example of a time when I had to pour on the sugar was during a heart-to-heart with one of my charges about a negative behavior — in this case, hitting. Instead of starting in on what the child did wrong, I chose to highlight what she did right and how we could make the other things better. I said, “I really appreciate that you apologized right away. That was thoughtful of you. Maybe next time, you can take a breath before you hit someone because saying ‘Sorry’ doesn’t make hitting OK.” With parents, this always meant sharing the good news before the bad news: “We had a good afternoon and she helped me put all the toys away. And this morning we had a discussion about hitting after she hit her sister.”

The takeaway: Communicating with everyone in a respectful, constructive way — and focusing mostly on the positive — is the only way I’ve known to actually make the not-so-great things better. To me, this is what Mary Poppins meant about “helping the medicine go down.”

“I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything.”

… says Mary Poppins with a stomp of her foot and a nod of her head. This scene always made me chuckle because it reminded me of my mother saying, “I don’t have to tell you why. I’m the mom. That’s why.” I always hated it when she would say it, so I tried my darndest to avoid it with my charges. I’d read about the importance of answering a child’s questions, and how kids are more compliant if they understand the reasoning behind the rules. But sometimes, reasoning and explanations only get you so far.

On one job, I was working with a 20-month-old girl who could be very stubborn about leaving the park. One day, we were at the park and it began to get very stormy. It was a 15-minute walk back to the house, so I immediately lifted her up and put her in the stroller. With her tiny little voice, she cried: “Why! Why we leaving, Tasha?” and I said “Because it’s going to rain. There may be thunder. We need to go inside.” She continued to cry and shout at me and I knew nothing I said could calm her down. So I said the one thing I could: “Because I said so!” We made it home just as the first drops started to fall and — sure enough — it began downpouring within minutes.

The takeaway: Whether you’re a parent or a nanny, there’s a certain element of authority that we have to cling to, especially when it comes to a child’s safety. Sometimes, that means putting your foot down and doing what’s best for the child — even if it means that we have no other answer besides, “Because I said so!”


This entire scene, half animated and half live action, is goofy with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke dancing and singing at a cartoon horse track. When one of the characters says, “There probably aren’t words to describe your emotions,” Mary Poppins replies, “On the contrary! There’s a very good word. It’s ‘Supercalifragilisticexcpialidocious!’” When I hear “Supercalifragilisticexcpialidocious,” I can’t help but sing along, but I also think about how that nonsensical word helped multiple characters express themselves.

In my relationship with kids, I always connect with them best when I meet them in a make-believe world: acting like cats all day or pretending we are pirates trying to find land while playing in the backyard. Kids, when given the freedom, can make up a rich world that is silly and not always based in reality, but that’s more than half the fun. Once, with an 8-year-old I was caring for, we decided that we had to say everything in a bold, operatic song. If you didn’t sing like you were in an opera, the other person pretended not to hear what you had said. When her parents came home that evening, they thought we were insane. But we laughed so hard that day that my ribs hurt when I went to bed.

The takeaway: While “Supercalifragilisticexcpialidocious” is total nonsense, I think it offers a great lesson in how to connect with kids: It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be real. It can be silly and fun — and still be a meaningful way to express yourself. Sometimes, what kids (and adults) need is a little nonsense!

“Practically perfect in every way.”

After measuring herself, Mary Poppins reads her tape measure aloud, “As I expected… Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way.” If there was ever a lesson about self-love and acceptance, I’d say this is it. As nannies and parents (and especially females), this may be something we struggle with ourselves. Not only does Mary Poppins serve as a role model for us, but she gives us the groundwork for showing kids how to love themselves.

When I played this game with my previous charges, I had them face a full-length mirror. Then, I used my arms to measure them from top to bottom, side to side, nose to belly button, ear to ear, etc. I held my arms out to show their size and share what that “size” meant. “Oh my goodness, look how smart you are!” or “Wow, this means you’re really cool!” (Of course, I recommend avoiding more negative things like “extremely stubborn and suspicious,” as Mary Poppins uses.)

The takeaway: It was always fun and silly, but I knew those moments of positivity left my charges feeling special, which is what it’s all about, right?

“Well begun is half done.”

“Our first game is called ‘Well Begun is Half-Done,’” Mary Poppins says. “Otherwise titled, ‘Let’s Tidy up the Nursery.’” My first nanny hack came from this gem. Always make any type of chore sound more fun than it is. Most of the time, the kids will realize halfway through that they’re just doing a really boring chore, but hey — they’re halfway through!

With my charges, laundry isn’t just “laundry.” Instead, we are “Stainbusters.” With kids of any age, stains are just par for the course, so I make it a game to see who can wash their clothes the best. It’s always the same setting on the washer and the same amount of soap, but don’t tell my kids that, OK?

The takeaway: No matter what, I get kids to start the chore and they are (usually) interested in seeing how it turns out in the end.

“That’s a piecrust promise. Easily made, easily broken.”

First of all, I would just like to know what Mary Poppins’ piecrust recipe is because I’ve never had a piecrust that was easy to make. Aside from that, I think this is such a strong message that we can share with our children: the difference between meaning what you say and just saying something to get your way.

My charges always know that when I promise them something, I’m good for it. Pinky promises are serious things in this line of work. As nannies or even parents, I think it’s easy to promise things (“I’ll give you that piece of candy if you just eat all your veggies”) and then renege at the end of the day. But kids remember that — and they learn from it.

The takeaway: None of us want our children or charges to grow up to break the promises they make, so let’s start by keeping the ones we make to them. And if you can’t keep a promise, don’t make it.

“Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.”

This is one of Mary Poppins’ last lines in the movie and it never fails to get me choked up. Mary Poppins, who managed to bring the Banks family closer together, knows it’s time to move on. While she prepares to float away, the family flies kites together outside. Her parrot umbrella says: “Look at them! You know, they think more of their father than they do of you!” to which Mary Poppins replies: “That’s as it should be.” The parrot then asks, “Well, don’t you care?” She responds, “Practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking.”
In Mary Poppins’ universe, her parrot umbrella, which should parrot back her words and outward expressions, instead lifts the veil to reveal how she really feels. He shows us just how much she really cares about leaving her charges, but she knows that it’s time. She can’t allow her emotions to stop her from doing what is right.

The takeaway: As nannies, our job is not to stick around forever — although we often wish we could. Our job is to help raise children to the best of our abilities in the time that we have with them. And when it’s time to move on, we do so knowing that those children have what they need to be happy. It does break our hearts a little (OK, a lot) to say goodbye and to move on, but it’s a necessary part of what we do. That’s what makes the time we have with our charges so sweet.

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