It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Myth of Better for Others than Parents

At the library this morning, where the following little vignette occurred:

I am herding my tots through the security gate (which will “BEEP!” if you take an unchecked book through it. SO exciting.). Another tot, about the same age, attracted by the children her age, is sort of being swept along with us.

Her mother calls her.

“Sadie! Come back to mama, sweetie.”
Sadie doesn’t appear to hear. Mama repeats herself. “Sadie, honey. Come back here to mama, please.”
Now Sadie pauses.
“Sadie? Come back to mama, sweetie.”
Sadie looks back at mama, smiles, and then turns toward me once more. Mama calls after her.
Sadie walks through the security gate to me and my tots. Mama calls to her receding back.
“Sadie, silly girl. Come back to mama!”
I smile at Sadie, put my hands on her shoulders and say, “Hello, Sadie. You know what? You need to go back to mama. She’s calling you.” Then I gently turn her around and then let her go. She races back to mama, bubbling over with (very loud) tears.

“Thanks!” says mama, then turns to Sadie. “Now why will you come to mama when that lady says, but not when mama calls?” Mama turns to me. “They always behave better for someone else, don’t they?”

I simply smile at her as I gather my tots to leave. I can’t give her a direct question because, you know what? Popular as that sentiment is, I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s nonsense.

I can hear gasps even among my regular readers. You didn’t know I dissed that myth, did you?

See, here’s how it is. Even as I watched her interact with her child, I saw that woman make a critical error. If she makes that error routinely, as she probably does, this would pretty much entirely explain why her child doesn’t ‘come here’ when mama says “come here”.

Then there is me, The Stranger. I actually put hands on the child — very gently, of course — and directed her mildly back to mama, and that was enough to set her to wailing and racing back to mama.

This would not have happened were I mama, of course. The response I got was qualitatively different than mama would have received for the exact same action. And it is from this discrepancy that the Myth of “Better for Others than Parents” arises.

And that myth extends not just to strangers, but to caregivers, too. What I do is somehow magical. The child will behave better for me, simply because I am not mama. Even when I am no longer a stranger, the child will behave better for me, because of my not-mama-ness. This is the Myth of Better for Others than Parents.

At first, the “Better for Others” myth is in fact grounded in fact. A stranger is often unsettling to a child, unnerving, perhaps even intimidating. Rather than interact with a stranger who gets a bit directive, the toddler will very often head back to the security of the parent, even if that means (sigh) doing what they were told. That works — but only so long as the other adult is still a stranger.

There’s a transitional period during which a child in my care gets used to me, when I go from Stranger to familiar. It generally takes about three weeks, sometimes as long as five. But I can guarantee you that, after no more than six weeks, if I had been consistently responding to the child as mama does, that the child would be ignoring me just as she ignored mama.

Conversely, if mama, for about three to six weeks, responded as I would in that situation, her child would be responding to her directions the same as she would to me.

There is nothing magical about what I do vs. what mama does. We’re just doing different stuff.

Okay. This will be your quiz, your chance to analyze and evaluate. What did that mother do wrong? What action did she take, or not take, that pretty much ensured that her child would igore her instructions? Why did the child feel secure to ignore her?

July 2, 2008 - Posted by | outings, parenting, power struggle |


  1. Action taken: calling from afar. Action not taken: physically going to get her daughter when she didn’t come the first time mom called her. Sadie didn’t listen because she didn’t have to; she knows there won’t be any follow-through, or at least there won’t be for a good long while, and in the meantime she can do as she pleases.

    Comment by Kiera | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  2. Oh – and saying something like “When I call you, you need to come back to me” to Sadie after mom physically gets her would probably help emphasize mom’s point.

    Top of the class for Kiera for both her insightful comments!

    Comment by Kiera | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  3. I agree with Kiera regarding follow-through.

    There was no motivation for Sadie to respond. She paused – presumably to see if her mother was going to escalate. When she didn’t, then why not go further and find out what the nice lady with the many children was doing. Sadie had nothing to lose.

    Nothing to lose and freedom to gain! Of course she kept going. I like your note that she paused to see what would happen next. Good point.

    Comment by Sylvia | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  4. I think it’s the word “sweetie” and referring to herself in the third person.

    I’m a former middle school teacher and well known as a mean mom. I never say “come here to mama.” What I say is “Get over here.”

    But I may have the wrong idea. I can envision our own library and Maeve wandering a bit. They words, “get over here” seem to work for us.

    When I was a LLL leader my biggest pet peeve was mothers who couldn’t control their children. My children may be spoiled in other ways, but in public, they do what they’re supposed to.

    Clear communication is essential, you’re right. There was nothing inherantly wrong with this mother’s phrasing, though. I’ve seen lots of mothers who use third person and are quite effective as parents. Too many words can certainly be a problem, too. Short sentences, clear vocabulary.

    Comment by Bridgett | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  5. Hm. I’m not a parent, but I used to teach a lot of swimming to tots. In that situation its a safety issue: they NEED to listen to me and stick with me because its a potentially dangerous situation. Kind of like going off with a stranger.

    And that’s the difference. The mother (“mama”) didn’t tell Sadie that she needed to go back to her mother. She basically asked Sadie to go back to – gave her a choice. When you said, “You need to…” there was no choice.

    That and Sadie knew that if she didn’t her mother would likely follow her rather than follow-up and make her return.

    You raise an interesting point. If it had been a matter of Sadie’s immediate personal safety, I’m sure the mother would have intervened much sooner. What she wasn’t considering is that training Sadie to ‘Come here when mama says ‘come here'” is always a safety issue. What happens should there come a time when it’s imperative that the child stop immediately, but she hasn’t learned to do so?

    Comment by Nicole | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  6. Hmm.. I get what you are suggesting about Mama’s lack of follow through and consequence. But I do still think that children are better “behaved” for others than their own parents. When kids (and us adults too!) are out and about in the world and even with friends, they are guarded and cautious about their true feelings. When home with their parents, they can sort of “let it all out”. And when you are a toddler “letting it all out” and relaxing at home can sometimes mean a tantrum because they are over tired/hungry/ need extra attention, etc. After all home is where you are unconditionally loved – I think children learn that very early on.

    Home should be a safe place. Home should be where you can relax and be true to yourself. That doesn’t necessarily have to equate to poorer behaviour, though. Good behaviour isn’t false, and a place where conflict and fatigue/hunger/attention is met with food, rest, and expectation of respect is a peaceful place.

    If home is the safe place, the place where the boundaries are clear, respectful, loving and firm loving, where one’s physical needs are met reliably … couldn’t it be just as readily argued that tantrums are less likely to occur here? I’m not saying that if your child throws tantrums at home it means you have an unhappy, anxiety-provoking home; I’m just flipping the assumption on its head a bit to see what falls out…

    Comment by Jenn | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  7. I think it has to do with the repetition. My kids seem to do better if I ask once and then just wait there, looking at them and expecting them to do what I say.

    Also, it’s all lost if I chase them. Once it turns into a game, they want to run away. Works better if I stand still most of the time.

    Good point. Do you say something with the expectation that it will happen, or do you say something with the expectation that it’s the beginning of a long process of pleading and escalating exasperation? I take your point about “chase-me” becoming a game, but there are times (and children) who absolutely require it. And that’s the subject of a total ‘nuther post!

    Comment by daycare girl | July 2, 2008 | Reply

  8. no kids, no qualifications in childcare. so here goes:

    Mom gave Sadie a choice. She did not use ‘need to’. She was requesting her daughter to do something if she can / feel like it.

    She could have tried to get her from Mary & Co. She obviously would have ran about. Then, say bye in a cheerful voice and turn back. Walk away from the scene.Firm steps. Dont pause.

    Erm, at least worked with my dogs, anyway šŸ˜€

    Welll… she didn’t phrase it as a question. “Come to mama” is pretty clear. Tacking “you need to” on the front is not going to be effective unless you’ve established that she needs to do what mama says she needs to do! The lack of follow-through is where it fell through in this example.

    (Oh, and don’t apologize about using your experience with dogs as a reference point. There’s a lot to be learned from rearing a well-behaved dog!)

    Comment by Suzi | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  9. Mama asked, not told her what to do, and child was confident in the knowledge that mam was not going anwhere without her anyway;)

    An insecure child always behaves better with parents than with strangers, a secure one will push the bounderies as far as poss with parents and familier adults but behave with strangers.

    In sport you soon learn that the child that starts behaving when parent arives is the one to worry about!

    Mostly the “behaves better for others” thing happens because others are so much better at reacting to child’s demands correctly;)

    Well, Mama did tell her. There were no questions asked. But you’re quite right: the child had learned (and re-learned that morning) that she didn’t have to heed, at least not the first or second time.

    I disagree about the behaviour of secure and insecure children with others. I’ve seen insecure kids behave very badly at home. I’d say it’s arguable that poor behaviour is quite likely to spring out of the anxiety that insecurity brings. I’ve seen lots of secure kids behave well at home.

    Insofar as an outsider may have a more objective perspective on the child’s behaviour, they could certainly be more likely to react appropriately. Remember, though, that I’m differentiating between familiar non-parents and strangers. Kids do tend to behave better for total strangers, as they tend to (not all, but most) be a little nervous of them.

    Comment by juggling mother | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. I don’t know what you’re going to say, but I know what I would have done if I was Sadie’s mom – I would have chased after that child and brought her back to where I was when I told her to come HERE the first time. I use the mantra “Tell, show, do” with toddlers. TELL them what to do, then SHOW them what to do (in this case, with hand motions beckoning the child over and pointing to my side where they need to be standing), and then make them DO it. The kids learn early that they might as well do what mom says. They’re going to do it anyways.

    Even my daycare client, who had a tendency to run away at every opportunity during his first 2-3 weeks with me, learned quickly that running away from Mamadragon is not going to get him anywhere. He still runs from his mom, though. He takes one look at her at my front door or driveway, and takes off, laughing. She thinks running away is funny and cute. I don’t. A classic example of learning different rules of behaviour with different people, and he’s only 18 months old.

    They can differentiate very early on, can’t they?

    “Tell-show-do!” I’d forgotten that mantra, but it’s an excellent one, and will find its way into my next post on this subject. Thank you so much!

    Comment by mamadragon | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  11. I see this all the time with my hubs and I. I use a firm voice, I physically steer our child, I have swift consequences and thus H listens to me and (95%) responds quickly. My hubs doesn’t do these things and he doesn’t get the responsive behavior I get. It frustrates me.

    It is frustating, isn’t it? You see the child behaving in a way that is not up to his/her capabilities, you see the adult being frustrated … but unless the adult is open to suggestion, nothing will change. When it’s between parents, it can be a real sore spot in a marriage. You have my sympathy!

    Comment by Henny Penny | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  12. You guys have been great! You’ve picked out the significant details, and made some great points of your own — which I will be picking up in the next post, currently on the drafting table.


    Comment by MaryP | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  13. oh finally! a perfect parent! i’ve been looking everywhere for you!

    get off your high horse, lady. what pathetic presumptions.

    Oh, good heavens! I re-read this post with the mindset that I was writing this as a parent, and you’re quite right: it’s INSUFFERABLE. Good lord.

    You haven’t been here before, so you can’t be expected to know that on this blog I rarely speak from my role as parent (though, with three kids and five stepkids, I do have a fair bit of experience), but as a childcare provider of 12 years. The tots with me in this story were not my own, but those in my professional care. Dozens of toddlers, dozens of parents over the years. So, while I’m not perfect, there are a few things I’ve learned along the way, particularly about toddlers. Ask me about teens, I’m far less assured … sigh …

    Comment by damewiggy | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  14. I tell this to my workers all the time, “say what you mean, and mean what you say”. It is a proven fact that children simply “let their hair down with the people they know love them unconditionally” and so, she knew mom was going to continue to love her regardless of whether she followed her directions or not.

    Secondly, my general rule in my daycare (where I am the director of about 25 kids and 4 employees) is this, tell them once and EXPECT them to do it. If they don’t do it and you feel that it simple enough, then you can tell them a second time, that’s all in the teachers personality, but if I hear a teacher tell a child “This is your third chance, I’ve told you twice already, now do so and so”…they can forget me intervening and helping. Say what you mean and mean what you say.

    Tell the child “Pick up the toys in the block center”, not “Joe, I need you to pick up the toys in the block center” or “Joe, you need to pick up the toys in the block center” or “Joe pick them up for me”……tsk tsk, which one of those did she really mean? She meant the first one, JOE PICK UP THE TOYS IN THE BLOCK CENTER and when Joe didn’t do it, it was time to walk over to Joe, point him in the right direction, even pick up one block to show him that you are serious about the job being done and then walk away with expectations in place.

    So, yea, expectations!

    Expectations and follow-through. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “I need you to”, or “You need to”, but nor do I think it’s any more effective than anything else you might say — unless it’s accompanied by follow-through.

    One or two repeats, then do. It’s a good rule of thum.

    Comment by Jerri Ann | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  15. I completely agree with the follow through expectaions expressed here.

    I don’t have much problem getting my kids to go where I tell them and do stuff. The problem I have is that they are absolutely incapable of shutting their mouths whilet hey do it. I can make them put their shoes in the closet if they don’t listen to me the first time. I can’t make them stop talking. There are times when the kids have to realize that talking isn’t an option, and I have no idea how to teach that. What do you suggest for that?

    You know, that has to be one of the most difficult behaviours to eradicate. I’ve had one incessant talker, and I really mean in.cess.ant. Though I did eventually teach him to “stop talking” when I said to stop, it was only ever temporary — a matter of seconds, a minute, tops. And he was LOUD. There were places I just wouldn’t go if he was in the group because his incessant, loud, and unfortunately grating voice was so disruptive of people around us.

    I’ve met him a few times since, though. He’s six now, and much, MUCH better than he was back then. So maybe this one really is a matter of maturity.

    Comment by ktjrdn | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  16. I think that there are some things that kids will do much more easily for/with others than they will for/with their parents.

    The example that I see with my two-year-old daughter is that she will willingly and quite happily sit still for the babysitter to comb her hair. When the babysitter asks “are you ready to comb your hair?” or “do you want me to make your hair look pretty?” – the answer is yes. Whether I ask her if she wants her hair done or simply announce that it’s time to do it, I’m met with resistance. That doesn’t mean that I don’t comb my daughter’s hair, just that the willing and happy part doesn’t happen for mama the way it does the babysitter.

    This doesn’t negate your point that effective child discipline can be used with parents and child-care givers alike with excellent results for both. Nor does it imply that what you do as a daycare provider is somehow magical – I recognize that is an insult to the hard work you do day in and day out. But I remain convinced that children sometimes give their parents a harder time on certain issues.

    You’ve brought back an old memory. My eldest had the most gorgeous hair when she was a toddler: long, thick blond curls. Just so amazing. And mummy would have loved to have played with it: bows and clips and ribbons and all manner of hair fripperies. Would she let me? She would NOT.

    I didn’t fight it. It got brushed (wet, after heavy conditioning). That sufficed. The hair play was not that important to me. Had she been in care, would the daycare provider been able to get the little monkey into the bows and barrettes? Who knows?

    Comment by Nelle | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  17. This has been an interesting post for me to read, and in fact this weblog as a whole gives me a really good insight into the world that my 2 year old experiences once the childminder’s door closes behind me. I know he behaves differently with me, although not necessarily better/worse; but I also know that the CM’s child-rearing philosophy is quite different to mine. I am comfortable with the fact that he can be himself in two different worlds; he’ll have to do a lot more of that as he gets bigger. He can understand that there are different rules at home. That’s not to say that we don’t have discipline problems, but it’s quite a learning curve for the first time parent.

    Differently, but not necessarily better/worse. That’s normal. They’ll respond to the differences in the environment differently. They’re not different people, but different experiences call forth different responses. Yes, we all make these adjustments — you don’t behave with superiors at work as you do with friends at a back-yard barbeque — and we can make them surprisingly early on in life! As you say, it’s a life skill and not necessarily a bad thing.

    Comment by Karen | July 3, 2008 | Reply

  18. It’s the other way around for me. The preschooler will do as I say (usually) but will run circles around Dad, the grandparents, etc. It’s because I punish swiftly and without (too much) mercy.

    I adopted your method, by the way, of teaching the toddler to walk with me and the pram. He slipped up a couple of times and ran off too far or didn’t stop when I called him. I might have yelled a bit too loudly in a public street (he came awfully close to the kerb at a run), but now he’s excellent at following instructions when we’re walking outside. Also, I have two aces up my sleeve: I let him bring a toy that I can then confiscate as punishment, and I identify failure to follow instructions as “toddler behaviour”, which apparently is the worst possible insult to an almost-4-year old. šŸ˜€ (Also, toddlers must hold on to the stroller while we walk. It’s a rule!) So, thank you for that previous post!

    You’re welcome. Now, if only absent-minded me could recall which post that might be … Actually, I do remember writing about the tots earning the privilege of walking without holding on. Good for you for thinking of the “toddler behaviour” twist. Hee.

    Comment by Kat | July 4, 2008 | Reply

  19. To me, by the third time you are calling, there is no sweet-sounding “silly girl” involved, by then my voice has gotten noticeably firmer and no-nonsense. Even the second repeat may have a warning note if I know she’s hear the first time. And by the third time I’m saying it, I’m poised to hustle after her if there isn’t immediate turnaround happening. It sounded like this woman was still calling sweetly and not moving to make her request happen if it wasn’t doing so by request alone.

    Exactly. Your response is virtually mine, and you’re right: this mom wasn’t poised to move, but was still waiting for the child to respond without further action on her part.

    Comment by kittenpie | July 6, 2008 | Reply

  20. Funny, it’s the same with dog training. You say the command once, no repeating it. If you do, they learn that they do not have to react until the third, fourth, what have you time you call them. So many of the same principles apply to children too – consistency, follow through and predictability.

    And funny, I emailed you about this two years ago at PIP when my son first started at his day care and I was convinced he was better for her than he was for us. How far we’ve come! And how far we have to go!! Any tips for getting your three year old to stay in bed? You’d think I could take the tips from above and apply them.

    I think you could take the tips from above and apply them. (I’m grinning.) You investigate the reason for night wandering, of course. If there’s an obvious cause to react to, you do so. But if it’s just mid-night wanderlust, three is quite old enough to understand “you stay in bed”. Varies by family, of course: some families are still sharing a bed at this point, and if everyone’s getting adequate and good-quality sleep, that’s fine. If your family style is ‘everyone sleeps in their own bed’, that’s fine, too.

    If it’s nightmares or anxiety, our family had a “bad dream bed”: a crib mattress made up with sheets and blanket, and laid on the floor beside my side of the bed. A child needing middle-of-the-night reassurance could slip into the bed (rule: no deliberately waking mummy!). I was usually woken, of course, enough to drop a hand down and stroke a back, but some mornings, I was completely surprised to see a little body in the bed. They each used the bed for a period of a few months around the age of 3 to 4, peak nightmare time, at least for my kids!

    Comment by Tricia | July 6, 2008 | Reply

  21. It’s funny, though, because I’m all about clear expectations, follow-through, and “say what you mean, mean what you say”, but this is not necessarily the best approach with my older son. My approach lately has been that I give him the choice to do it the “easy way” or the “hard way”. I clearly explain how each way is going to work, and then tell him that I will give him until the count of three to make his decision which way he would like to do things. He doesn’t necessarily respond best to this. His is a personality where you get better results if you DO make a game out of things. If you can make him laugh, he’s more than willing to do anything you want. Go too hard, and you run the risk of meltdown. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the patience and energy to make a game out of everything.

    Good points, all of them. The “easy way or hard way, a little time to choose” is a solid approach. So is using humour. (As long as humour doesn’t degenerate into coaxing.) Your point that you choose the method that works best for your child is well taken — as is your point that sometimes the parent just doesn’t have it in them, and the kid just has to comply. You know what? That’s perfectly reasonable. We don’t always get to have things go the way that suits our characters. Everyone compromises. Sometimes parents even compromise with themselves over their own parenting approach …

    Comment by nomotherearth | July 6, 2008 | Reply

  22. before I read the rest of the comments…
    mama does nothing when Sadie turns and walks away from her. Momma does not stop her, mama does not give her any incentive to do what she is told.

    mama is teaching Sadie to ignore her, and her voice, by not following through.

    The point at which Sadie chose to disobey and walk away is the point at which mama should have taken action.

    What action, whether it be a standard consequence for not listening or simply reinforcing her words with physical assistance in my opinion is less important than when.

    now I’m going to read what every one else said.

    You, my dear, are a natural at this. Your instincts are as good as someone with years of training and decades of experience. I’m consistently impressed by the quality of your insights. (And not only when you agree with me!)

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | July 7, 2008 | Reply

  23. Aw shucks Mary. I just read this.

    I can’t take credit though. My MIL is a very experienced mama.
    She has 8 children and used to do respite care for families with children with special needs. She’s good at this parenting gig. When she talks, I listen. She guided me through he first two years of motherhood and I have her to thank for most instincts I may appear to have.

    Comment by carrien (she laughs at the days) | July 20, 2008 | Reply

  24. […] the difference? Is it that “children always behave better for others than their parents”? Suzie’s mother’s been known to cite the […]

    Pingback by You want to make Mary twitch? « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | October 17, 2012 | Reply

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