Mary Poppins Returns: What She Means to Modern Parents and Children


Disney released the original Mary Poppins movie in 1964. Speaking for myself, I watched Mary Poppins as a child and fondly remember the catchy tunes and uplifting story.

Mary Poppins, lamp, table, bag, boy, girl

At the end of 2018, 54 years after the first film, Disney released a sequel of sorts, Mary Poppins Returns.

Given the famous musical nanny’s broad appeal, my husband, my children, my parents, and I all attended the movie together on opening weekend. Frankly, I went kind of begrudgingly. I mean, really, how could Disney ever hope to improve upon such a beloved classic? It just seemed like a frivolous waste of time… until I read an interview with the director, Rob Marshall, in the December 28, 2018 edition of Entertainment Weekly. His words hooked me. Suddenly, I couldn’t get to the theater fast enough. What did Rob Marshall say to pique my originally lukewarm interest?

The interviewer asked Rob Marshall, known for directing such Broadway to Hollywood hits as Chicago and Into the Woods, why he wanted to bring the character of Mary Poppins back to the big screen. His response not only continues to resonate with me, but since reading his answer, it practically reverberates through me daily:

She’s the adult in the room.

I never thought about Mary Poppins that way as a child. She just sang upbeat songs, wore gorgeous frilly clothes, and made life more colorful for the Banks children (and for me as a rapt viewer). As an adult and as a parent, though, given the context provided by Rob Marshall, I suddenly see it. I know what he means. Mary Poppins shows other adults how to act like adults, and she shows children how to act like children. She literally falls out of the sky and into a family’s life when these roles get mixed up, and she disappears back into the sky when she sets things right again.

She’s the adult in the room.

mary poppins, umbrellas

After running to the theater to soak in Mary Poppins Returns through this new lens, I enjoyed the movie for its surface charms and declare it a frilly, frothy delight, though the music lacks the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head quality of the original.

Mary Poppins

To avoid spoiling the film for you, I can safely share that the titular nanny sets an appropriate example for the now adult Banks children, Michael and Jane, teaching the absent-minded and grieving Michael how to behave like a responsible adult and parent his children properly. In the meantime, Mary Poppins removes adult responsibilities from Michael’s independent, serious children and brings laughter and fun back into their lives, while enlisting them in a few age-appropriate plot twists that help avert the central crisis of the movie.

Unfortunately, Marshall set Mary Poppins Returns, based on the writings of P.L. Travers, in London during “The Great Slump,” about 100 years ago. We must necessarily question her relevance to us today.

Still haunted by Marshall’s statement, “She’s the adult in the room,” I left the film wholly unsatisfied and wondering, “What would Mary Poppins think of modern parenthood and childhood?”

Frankly, I think she’d be horrified and overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “opportunities” in modern times to show adults how to adult (imagine her look of horror at the common use of this noun as a verb) and to show children how to maintain their innocence and their place as a protected class in society. What would Mary Poppins want to say to us as modern parents in 2019? I suspect the following phrases would rush to her mind…

  • “Put down your phone, and pay attention to your children.”
  • “Get off Facebook and schedule real-life ‘playdates’ with friends and family for you and your children.”
  • “Stop using electronic devices as babysitters for your children. Do something as a family together instead, like play a board game or cook breakfast.”
  • Go outside and take your children with you, preferably to a lovely park with a fountain, a carousel, and dancing penguins.”
  • “Stop trying to do everything by yourself. Assign age-appropriate chores to your children and sing while you work together.”
  • “Correct your children swiftly when they talk back or misbehave, both privately and in public. Spit spot.”
  • “Pay attention to your children’s fears, and do your best to make them feel safe, comforted, and loved.”
  • “Never ask your children to take care of you or your feelings but teach them to be kind to adults and other children alike.”
  • “Read with your children and help them with their homework – but don’t do it for them!”

Son, walking, foliage, fleeting, Mary Poppins

In guessing at Mary’s view of our modern parenting, I do not mean to offend, judge, or point fingers. I would also be on the receiving end of many of Mary’s critical thoughts above.

Luckily for us, Mary rarely voices her criticisms of other adults directly, preferring instead to make her point via more circuitous and creative paths. Besides, modern adults observe an unspoken rule never to tell other adults how to parent, and Mary Poppins, with all her magic, would intuitively know this custom.

On the flip side, what would Mary Poppins want to say to our modern children in 2019?

  • “Put down your phone, and listen to your parents.”
  • “Get off Snapchat, and talk to your family and friends. Make plans with them in real life.”
  • “Stop staring at your electronic devices. Do something with your family or friends instead.”
  • “Go outside with your parents or friends, preferably to a lovely park with a fountain, a carousel, and dancing penguins.”
  • “You must help your parents with household chores. Teach them to sing while you work together.”
  • “Avoid talking back to your parents or misbehaving. Parents deserve your respect and cooperation.”
  • “Offer hugs and kisses to your parents often. They need them.”
  • “Be kind to adults and other children alike.”
  • “Read with your parents and ask for help with your homework – but don’t expect your parents to do it for you!

funny, respect, google, homework, Mary Poppins

Most of all, Mary would delight us, parents and children alike, with her fun, outdoor musical diversions that trump any comparatively weak distractions offered by electronic devices.

In her way of ways, she would bring all of us modern parents and children closer together, correcting our bad habits and re-establishing our proper roles, before making her quiet exit. “She’s the adult in the room,” and she knows exactly when her work is done.

Rob Marshall additionally commented on his resurrection of Mary Poppins at this moment in time by stating, “I think we need her now more than ever… We need someone who can set things straight and remind us what the values of real life are… [We need] a world where wondrous things can still happen.”

With citizens of our country bitterly divided over politics along party lines, Mary Poppins would scold us for the bad example we set for our kids and then sternly advise us to, “Stop fighting. End the silent treatment. Talk to each other, and then listen. Work together to solve the problems of the nation and the world – for the sake of everyone’s children.” More likely, she’d sing us a witty song on the subject.

Do you think modern society needs a Mary-Poppins-style adult in the room? Do you feel connected to Mary Poppins as a former child and/or as a current parent? What did you think of this new adaptation?



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