It’s Not All Mary Poppins


A woman approached the table where the tots and I sat in our neighbourhood coffee shop. I’m sipping a latte, they are munching on blueberry muffins. We are chatting together, the six of us.

“Are they all yours?”

You’d be astonished how often I get asked. Two three-year-olds and three two-year-olds? My poor, weary womb…

“No, it’s a daycare. We’re all friends!”

“Are they always this well-behaved?” Since they are doing nothing out of the ordinary, the only answer I can give is a straightforward,


“Wow! You’re so lucky.”

We’re at a park. There are three play areas in this park, and my five are playing in an around the one containing a playhouse. They are making birthday cakes and singing “Happy Birthday” as they present buckets filled with sand and sticks (aka candles) to each other. It is very cute.

Another woman, mother of busy 15-month-old, comments, “Look at them all playing together. Do they always stay together like that?”

“Pretty much.”

“You’re so lucky!”

I get that a lot. I take five toddlers to a coffee shop, we stay for 25 minutes, with everyone staying in their chairs, waiting for their food, saying “please” and “thank you”, and not being disruptively loud — and that’s luck?

I have five two- and three-year-olds in a park, and they play co-operatively together, staying within a clearly defined area — and that’s luck?

Thanks a helluva lot.

I’m aware that there is a reluctance on the part of many mothers to take credit for their child’s good behaviour. I can only speculate why. I wonder if it’s a form of inverse political correctness: if I take credit for my child’s good behaviour, that means a parent with poorly-behaved children must take the blame for that. We see this as unfair, I guess. And, yes: there are those children who, given the best, most loving, wise and sensible of parents, still end up rebellious, defiant, rude, unkind. Children who cause their parents no end of grief. It happens. Life’s unfair like that. But is that the norm? I don’t think so.

And does that mean that you should not take credit for the good behaviour that is the result of days and weeks and months and years of careful, consistent, reasoned, diligent effort? Why is it that women, who are so willing to accept blame and guilt for every quirk of their children’s behaviour, are so reluctant to accept the credit for the good stuff? My three kids are a constant source of pride to me: because they are marvellous people in their own right — but also because they are (in part, though not entirely, of course) a credit to my parenting.

Yes, they are.

And the fact that I am able to take five or six toddlers all over this city, that we can frequent coffee shops and busses and art galleries and museums, and have nary a tantrum or hissy fit (well, maybe three a year) … this is luck? That I’ve been doing it for twelve or so years, with dozens of children, who are all pretty uniformly well-behaved?

I’m just so lucky.

Anyone can be an effective parent. All it takes is a little luck!

May 6, 2008 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, manners, outings, parenting, socializing


  1. I’d definitely agree they are a testament to you doing an EXCELLENT job with them. I think THEY (and their parents) are the lucky ones!

    Thank you! Happily for me, this group of parents would all agree with you!

    Comment by Ms. Huis Herself | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  2. It is a strange thing to say, and disrespectful of all your hard work.

    I wonder if it’s related to how my engineering skills get dismissed as “natural talent” instead of the result of years of effort. From my perspective, getting an engineering degree doesn’t require some unusual gift, just a whole lot of perseverance in the face of difficulty. Rather like what you do.

    It is disrespectful, though I’m quite sure it isn’t intended to be.

    As for the “natural talent” idea? Given that we can’t all be uniformly good at everything, some of us will have skills and abilities that others lack — including parenting (and engineering!). However, even if you chose to argue that I have a natural aptitude for parenting, what that means is likely that whe confronted with a parenting dilemma, you see a path of action more readily than another parent might. It does NOT, however, make walking that path any easier!

    No matter how hard some of us work, we will not be as good a musician, or writer, or mathematician, or multiple-language speaker, or mechanic, or athlete as someone with innate natural ability. But that in no way reduces the amount of sheer hard work, application, dedication it takes to excell at any one of these things. All the talent in the world will not make a painter out of someone who never puts brush to canvas.

    It’s a truism that invention is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration,” but I think it applies to any human ability. Natural aptitude may give you the 10% more readily. As for the other 90%? Hard work, for each and every one of us. And I would like to be given credit for my hard work, thanks! As do we all!

    Comment by Helen | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  3. I agree. Most women seem very hesitant to take any responsiblity for the good behavior of their children and much more likely to shoulder the bad.

    My comment about our parenting of Jeffrey is that he is in general a good natured little guy. But we also think that we’re good parents. We do our best to make informed decisions that are based on what seems right to us. We realize that works for us may not work for everyone.

    But it’s not all luck. Especially not for someone like you that has honed those skills with years of toddlers. 🙂

    It’s absolutely not all luck. I have seen good-natured children morph into petulant tyrants when in the ‘control’ of well-meaning but ineffective parents, so the fact that a good-natured child remains a good-natured is still a credit to his/her parents.

    “What works for you may not work for everyone” is true — but the fact remains that you discovered what works for you, and you’ve applied it, diligently and consistently. I’d be willing to bet that sometimes you’ve tried things that didn’t work, and went back and re-evaluated, and worked at it till you found what did, too!

    Comment by Dani | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  4. My four year old still takes a nap. I am not lucky. I worked damned hard when he was a baby to start this routine. I give up all activities that happen this time of day. I never run errands past naptime. I am always home. He doesn’t even know that naps are an option. I am not lucky. I worked hard and I am reaping the benefits. Pat yourself on the back.

    Indeed. Pat yourself on the back, too!

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  5. Definitely, it’s them who are lucky!

    Thank you! And as I said to the last commenter, these parents all think so, too, which is nice for me!

    Comment by nomotherearth | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  6. When people tell me my kids are polite or well behaved and I am lucky I say “Thank you but it’s not luck!”

    You’re right, it’s damn hard work and I AM taking credit for it!

    Good for you! And I’m so stealing that reply. Polite, but not accepting the (unintended) insult/belittling.

    Comment by Bethany | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  7. Al was saying much the same thing today, but using examples of badly behaved children and their ineffective parents whom he has seen over the last few days. For example, the children who were pulling apple blossom off the tree, who were moaned at (“we’ll go home right now if you do that again, I mean it this time”) ) but not stopped. The child who climbed up on his shop counter in view of his mother who ignored it until he fell off. The three-year-old who was being reasoned with by his father, when he should simply have been told what to do.

    It’s easier in the short-term, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your children, to see the parents of well-behaved children as “lucky”. If there are genuine disabilities/mental health issues present, this is true. But most misbehaviour is of the garden-variety sort that can quite readily be handled effectively by firm, consistent parenting. And in that case, it’s far better to see it as anything but luck — because then you have options! You have a course of action! You can be in control.

    Comment by Z | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  8. Ooooh, the “you’re so lucky” comment is at the top of my list of pet peeves.

    You’re so lucky that your children are so well behaved.

    You’re so lucky that you “get” to stay home with them.

    You’re so lucky that your husband cooks and does laundry.

    I mean, seriously?

    Luck has nothing to do with it…luck is finding a twenty dollar bill in your pants pocket just before sending it to the cleaners.

    Luck has nothing to do with expectations of age appropriate social behaviour.

    Great post.

    Calling someone else’s choices “lucky” can too often be mere refusal to acknowledge the hard work and sacrifice that occurred to allow that “luck” to happen. That’s exasperating, unfair, and demeaning. As you point out, ‘luck’ is random happenstance. A life choice that costs you, even while it rewards you? A set of decisions that you work hard to implement? The happy result of years of effort? Those things are not “luck”.

    Comment by Zayna | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  9. As a teacher, I fully understand the correlation between parents vigilance and the behavior of their child in public. Thank you so much for preparing your kids while they are young. I will appreciate it once they get to middle school.

    Thank you. My kids have been through middle school (my oldest is a university grad, my middle about to start college, my youngest in grade nine — and their middle school teachers loved them), but the kids I work with will be yours in, oh, ten years or so!

    Comment by Matt | May 6, 2008 | Reply

  10. I think its because they dont want to take the blame for their unruly kids.

    Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it’s that they don’t want someone with unruly kids to feel blamed. But really, if you take responsibility, you also take control — which is better for everyone.

    Comment by Suzi | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  11. It’s not luck– so it must be work and skill.

    Do you have a system of parenting you use, or a great book of how-to (I must have lost my manual)? I’d like to have well behaved children, but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if I have any idea how to do it.

    Care to help all us un-lucky ones out?

    First you have to make sure your expectations are reasonable. Once you’ve established that … Gracious. Where to begin? What I say/do isn’t new or ground-breaking, and it’s not a magic bullet, it takes time and persistance; I’ve talked about it quite regularly over the months, though not generally in a systematic way.

    Have you read the tantrum posts? They’re a good place to start: Part one: Philosophical Background, Part two, more thinking about it, and Part three, Screaming. When you’ve read them if you have more questions, feel free to email me: notmaryp at gmail dot com

    Comment by Ki | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  12. Mary, I have been reading your blog for over six months now precisely for the purpose of reassuring myself that a child’s behavior is NOT always luck of the draw. Your experiences prove to me that it is possible to be an effective parent without being a tyrant (and the flip side, that it’s possible to be an awesome, cool & hip parent without being a wuss.) I am about a month out from having my first child, and I am not planning on leaving much up to chance when it comes to caring for and teaching him. Can’t wait to try out your tantrum techniques! 😉

    I really hope it goes smoothly for you. Parenting is done a little differently by each parent, of course, but there are also principles that hold true across a whole heap of kids! And the way you describe me as a parent/nurturer is exactly what I want to be — so if that’s what you see in my writing, you’ve paid me a very nice compliment. Thank you!

    Comment by Kendra | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  13. I always think of it as a combination of luck of the personality draw and parenting, though Misterpie is sure it’s all parenting (probably because ours is relatively easy – ha!). Because I’ve seen some crazy kids where it’s obvious why, and some who are… a handful, despite what look like good efforts. And others who are pretty nice despite their parents’ worst efforts, and so on.

    That said, I must admit, I’m finding it pleasing to see that I rarely have to carry out a threat these days after having a standing policy not to issue a threat I won’t carry out on. Of course, I’d prefer it if she’d listen the first time so I don’t have to GET to the threat… but there are those testing times when that’s the way it is. sigh.

    But that’s all with one kid. With several? I think there’s a lot of accumulated skill in child management involved, be it in a daycare or a classroom, because again, I’ve seen daycares that are bloody mayhem, and daycares that are lovely, and the same with classes. THAT is not all the work of the kids, by a long shot! So good on you, Miss Mary P.

    The irony here is that, as far as their characters go, I’m in the camp that says basic character is innate — thus, the luck of the draw! You can smooth out, encourage, and channel the child’s characteristics, but the basic package is presented to you at birth. (When my first was born, I was solidly in Misterpie’s camp: it’s all parenting. My views have modified with experience — excuse me. Meaning no disrespect to Misterpie: perhaps I should better say my views have modified with my perspective on my experiences.)

    However, no matter what their basic character, behaviour can be trained in. And training is what it is: a steady process of gradual training, one interaction at a time, over days, weeks, months, and years, always with the goal of a considerate, civilized adult human being. An active child, a passive child, a child with a short fuse, an easy-going child, an aggressive child, a gentle child — they can (with very few exceptions) all learn the essential patterns of acceptable social behaviours.

    Comment by kittenpie | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  14. I take credit for everything good, even when (sometimes) it was probably daycare and not me. *big evil chuckles* Sleep deprivation gets blamed for everything else.

    Ah, Kat. I love your approach. Particularly since it’s clear you have a happy, essentially well-behaved toddler — and I’m sure his sisters will do just as well!

    Comment by Kat | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  15. I love this post! As a father of twins, I get this stuff a lot. I enjoy taking my kids out by myself – sometimes we’ll go to a local Panera (a chain bakery) where we’ll have juice and muffin tops or I’ll take them to the park or just out in general.

    And I take great pride in knowing that my kids are very well behaved. And I do know that it is because my wife and I have done (if I do say so myself) a darn good job of parenting. They are well behaved because we set boundaries for them and there are consequences for crossing those barriers. We’re consistent in enforcing our expectations and, because of that, they know what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

    Lately, I have found myself saying things like, “I am lucky but my wife and I have also worked pretty hard to reinforce good behavior.”

    Thanks for saying it’s okay to take the credit for doing a job well done!

    It is. It’s a long job, it’s a job that goes on for years — if you can’t take credit when it’s done well, there’s very little reward for all those years of effort, is there? Well, of course you look at your grown children and feel pride, but if it really is all luck … pride in what, exactly? “Gee, that was some damned fine DNA we contributed, wasn’t it, dear?”

    Comment by Childsplayx2 | May 7, 2008 | Reply

  16. I always feel fully responsible when my children are poorly behaved. Because I know better. I know better than to take them out when they are tired, hungry, sick, etc. I know better than to say something ineffectual instead of take action or teach them proper behavior. I know when I’ve become lax and it shows.

    That said, I also enjoy their good behavior as a sign that I am doing well as a parent.

    Ah, but the responsibility you’re taking is the kind that knows their behaviour has little to do with luck. You know when you’ve “become lax”, and you also have a clear idea of what needs to be changed. That’s not the same as looking helplessly at your children’s poor behaviour and, since you are not sure what can be done, deciding it’s all luck and nothing can be done. Your expectations are that your children can/will behave well, and when that’s not happening (and I’ll bet it’s the exception rather than the rule), you take action to effect a positive change. Not “luck” at all.

    Comment by carrien | May 8, 2008 | Reply

  17. I just wrote my mom a Mother’s Day card and thanked her for all the blood, sweat and tears that she used while raising my sister and I into the people we are now. If I’m lucky good perhaps my kids will thank me someday too.

    Comment by Jill in Atlanta | May 9, 2008 | Reply

  18. […] “I’ll bet you’re done now!” he chortles. And you know what? I join right in. I am done. No need to point out I’ve been “done” for sixteen years… I’ll take it as a compliment that 1) I look young enough to have an 8-month-old baby (!!!) and 2) I’m doing my job well enough that I can be mistaken for their mother, not a hired gun, and 3) they commented on the childrens’ excellent behaviour, which, unlike many women out there, I take as a direct tribute to my hard work. […]

    Pingback by It’s Not All Mary Poppins | October 26, 2009 | Reply

  19. […] Guess I’m just “lucky”, […]

    Pingback by What I said « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | January 6, 2010 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: