It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Interview Question Number 3: Mary’s Parenting Mistakes

The third installment of the Interview Meme. You can find the previous two questions here (#1), and here (#2).

3. Most people who read your blog end up, like me, very impressed by your parenting (caregiving) skills. But ‘fess up, it ain’t all Mary Poppins! Share one of your mistakes with us! When you first started parenting, what were you doing that causes the more experienced, wiser version of MaryP to shake her head disapprovingly and mutter “tsk tsk”?

I do, you know. “Tsk, tsk” my younger self. Which is not to say I think I did a bad job. I rather think I did a great job, and my kids bear that out. However, back in the early days, I was…
I was…

I was an Earnest Mommy.

Yes, indeed. Nowadays I mock them, gently. Once, I was one.

Let me first say that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being an Earnest Mommy. Most first-time mothers are Earnest Mommies, and they do, for all their over-analysis, angst, and intensity, a fine job. (YES, of course you do!) However, Earnest Mommy-ing does lend itself to certain parental weaknesses…

Now, I wasn’t an out-of-control Earnest Mommy. My children were never allowed to treat me with disrespect, scream in my face or hit me, dictate their own bedtimes, or misbehave in coffee shops.


See this fridge magnet? Which I now have on my fridge because it makes me grin, every time?


Back in the early days, I would not have understood this. It would only have confused, or perhaps annoyed, me. It would have been inexplicable. Aren’t mothers supposed to do all they can for their children? Isn’t it right and appropriate that a child can know s/he can rely on their parents?

Now I know better. Yes, I do my best, but I am not the beginning and end of my child’s world. Their every twitch and rustle does not take its root in me. Their decisions are their own, not mine.

In the early days, I made it my responsibility to see that my children were happy.

So, when my first came home from school upset at a certain social interaction or dynamic, I would work with her, sorting it out, analysing it, considering the best possible response(s). I might – though not often, even then – meet with the teacher or even phone the parents of the other children. But mostly, when working it through with my daughter, I would not leave off until she was happy. If I put forth several possible solutions, and she, in her disgruntlement, dismissed each and every one, I’d keep going, brain-storming, encouraging, persisting, probably, now that I consider it from this distance, essentially badgering her (in the kindest and best-of-intentioned ways), until she would accept one of the ideas (or, unlikely as it might be in a mindset of dismissal, suggest an idea of her own) and work with me.

The result? I became responsible, not only to be a resource to her in these situations, but for her happiness.


When you make yourself responsible for your child’s happiness, you take this responsibility from your child. Now when the child is upset or disgruntled, it’s up to you, the parent, to fix it. It becomes your fault. An impossible situation, really, because no one, no matter how much they love, cherish, respect, admire – whatever – another person, no one can make another person happy.

As a result of my Earnest Mommy refusing-to-release till she was content, when she was unhappy, I became the source of that feeling. Of course, I wasn’t (well, not generally!), but we both worked on the assumption that until Haley was happy, my work wasn’t finished. It made for a lot of dissatisfaction, resentfulness, and, ironically, unhappiness. (Well. Let me clarify: Haley’s childhood was essentially happy, and the conflicts we had in her adolescence would have made me the envy of many of her peer’s parents – but the principle holds. This assumption of ours reduced her experience happiness/satisfaction rather than enhanced it.)

Nowadays, I will listen, I will help the child sort it out, examine the dynamic, analyze what’s happening. Because, hey, I’ve been alive for 24/28/32 more years than you, kid, thus I have more general life experience, and a perspective you may lack. I provide a different outlook, and suggest myself as a resource. I will try to help the child evolve responses. But should the child resist…

“All right, then. I’ll leave it with you, then. You can let me know if you want to talk about this later.” (Sometimes, I confess, if the resistance has been expressed with sufficient snark, I will say this in a rather snarky tone of voice myself. Because I am human, and the older they get, the more one expects an adult-level response from them.) But I don’t respond with snark often, because most of the time, unless they’ve been offensive, I’m not offended. I’ve just know these days, that, bottom line, this is my child’s problem. If they wish my assistance, they can treat me and my ideas with respect. If they don’t wish my assistance – or, if they’re responding to it with resistance, hostility and/or disrespect – I don’t give it. Simple.

(I’m talking more about teens than toddlers here, but even with toddlers, you can – I certainly do – say “You may be angry, but you may not scream/hit/kick/bite. When you can use your calm voice/stop hitting, I can help you some more.”)

And thus they learn that a) I trust them to solve their problems/make their own decisions, b) I think they’ve capable of doing this without me, and c) their happiness is their responsibility. I will probably follow up in a day or two – “How did it go?” – but I don’t feel I must be part of the process through to its completion.

Emma appeared part-way through the writing of this. Sat on the porch railing and stared at me as I tried to compose my next pithy sentence. When I finally deigned to look at her, she came out with the completely predictable, “I’m bored.” I lifted my chin, grinned at her, and said, “Not my responsibility.” “Ooooo”, she says, pointing a finger at me and made a hissing sound, grins, and vanishes inside the house. Two minutes later, she’s on her way to a friend’s. Perfect!

She’s happy. I’m happy.

July 21, 2007 - Posted by | memes and quizzes, parenting


  1. you could have linked the coffee shop bit to my post about the spilt orange juice and handbag incident…! x

    Comment by jenny uk | July 22, 2007 | Reply

  2. Mary, you are a wise woman. Your kids are blessed to have you.

    My mom was Earnest in this very way. If we were not happy, by George, she would MAKE us happy! Just as you described, it was exhausting for all of us. Plus, I went into adulthood thinking that I had to be happy all the time, and with very little idea how to solve my own problems. My poor husband had to live with me while I grew up since my mother hadn’t allowed me to do it earlier.

    I love my mom and (after some therapy, hee hee) I understand why she parented that way, but I do try not to be a “helicopter mother” who hovers over my children trying to meet their every need. The way you put these concepts into words is very helpful, by the way, while I am still in the trenches!

    Comment by Alison | July 22, 2007 | Reply

  3. Jenny: Oh, yes. I always use my friends as bad examples, I do… 😎

    Alison: I’m glad you’ve sorted things out with your mother. (Or I hope you have, anyway, and I’m glad you’ve sorted them out within yourself.)

    The odd thing for me was that even when I was still behaving this way with my eldest – though increasingly less all the time – I wasn’t doing it with the two younger ones at all. Behaviour patterns/habits of interactions are hard to break!

    You know what? I’m still in the trenches, too, at least with the youngest! (The older two still get parenting, of course, but with the oldest having been living on her own for a couple of years now, and the middle one in what is likely his last year at home, parenting looks different – and is, thank the lord, much less intensive.) My parenting goals/responsibilites are different than yours, but it can still get intense around here from time to time!

    It was my wise aunt (and parenting mentor) who once said something like, “When they’re little, they need you constantly, but the problems are simple; when they’re teens, they need you less constantly (intermittently, even), but the problems are much more complicated.”

    Comment by maryp | July 22, 2007 | Reply

  4. I sometimes wish I had more children for the parenting practice. 😛

    Great post Mary. I’ve been the earnest mom, the jellyfish mom, the brick wall mom and the let-them-eat-cake mom. That’s only two kids…yikes.

    In the end, parenting is all about learning what works and what doesn’t to reach the end goal of a self-sufficient, confident and well rounded adult.

    Comment by Sheri | July 23, 2007 | Reply

  5. What a beautiful lesson in this post. I’m an Earnest Mother with a dash of Type A (competitive, driven) personality and a smidgeon of neurosis. My son is only 5.5 months old, but he’s already picked up on my need to please and make everything perfect. After reading your essay, I’m going to make myself step back more and enjoy him and stop trying to be the Earnest Mother. I want to be the Laid Back, Go-With-The-Flow (but responsive) Mother.

    Comment by Micaela | July 23, 2007 | Reply

  6. Yes, I’ve sorted things out with my mom. She’s a wonderful (and not too-terribly-Earnest) grandma!

    I know there will be different challenges as they get older. I’m hoping the relationships I’m building now will stand us in good stead then.

    Oh, and good for you, Micaela. Your children are only little for such a short time. From my experience, you will enjoy them more if you learn not to sweat the small stuff.

    Comment by Alison | July 23, 2007 | Reply

  7. That is a beautiful phrase. Next time I get an “I’m bored” I’m going to whip out a “not my responsibility.”



    Comment by Ki | July 25, 2007 | Reply

  8. Sheri: It’s true. You DO get better with practice… A confident, self-sufficient, well-rounded adult. Well said!

    Micaela: I’m very curious as to how a 5.5-month-old manifests a “need to please and make everything perfect”. Oh, or do you mean he’s responding to that characteristic in you? Even so, I’m curious as to how you see that when he does it.

    If you’re Type A, it’ll go against the grain to be Laid Back, that’s for sure. Maybe you could make it your parenting goal (because Type A’s do well with clear and challenging goals) to NOT respond immediately, but to take 90 seconds to pause and evaluate. It would give you that small moment between stimulus and response to rein in your natural inclination, and try something different – remembering that your Type A-ness may well be appropriate, some of the time!

    Alison: The relationship you’re building now is extremely important to how you relate when you have a teen. Respect is key. If there’s mutual respect, everything else falls into place. Respect based on love, and a generous dollop of humour.

    Ki: It’s VERY freeing – as well as being absolute fact. Will it come as a huge shock to the child in question when that phrase falls from your lips?

    Comment by MaryP | July 25, 2007 | Reply

  9. I had an earnest mommy, who often rescued me at the last minute when she should have let me deal with the consequences. It’s been a very hard path as an adult to become adult in those areas. She still apologizes to me when I’m not happy, and she’s not even in the same country!

    Comment by carrien | July 26, 2007 | Reply

  10. Sorry so late to respondand congratulations on winning! My soon to be six-month old knows I’m type A by the way he pushes my buttons and wins. He can be sort of whiny and crying, but not in full out agony, and I’ll run over and do everything in my power to make him happy. His eh eh ehs turn into heh heh hehs and he’s giggling. As soon as I stop what I was doing (such as making raspberries), he’ll go right back to the eh eh eh, cry.
    I realize it’s anthropomorphic, but I swear he knows I’ll try really, really, really hard to make everything happy and copacetic.
    I like your advice, and I’ll try it.

    Comment by Micaela | July 27, 2007 | Reply

  11. My MIL tells me a lot of little gems around parenting. But she often adds that she didn’t learn so much of that as a parent herself, but instead as a fourth grade teacher.

    I always appreciate when people I respect lower the bar on parenting achievement. Thanks Mary!

    Comment by mo-wo | July 30, 2007 | Reply

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