It’s Not All Mary Poppins

You want to make Mary twitch?

A mother stands in my front hall at the end of the day.

Her daughter reaches for the latch of the front door. Now, this is Not Allowed at Mary’s house. Children are never, ever to open the front door. Never, ever, ever. I shudder to think of the chaos and potential tragedy that could result from children wandering out the door. Most of the time, the screen door is kept locked to prevent escapes, but this is the end of the day, parents are coming and going. The door is unlocked.

Nonetheless, locked or not, the door is Off Limits to the children, and SuzieQ knows this. However, she has obviously weighed our respective authorities (who’s the boss? mummy or Mary?) and our potential to act (who’s standing closer to me?), and figures it’s a risk worth taking. Mother notices.

“Suzie. Leave the door, please.”

Suzie looks at mum, and puts her hand on the door knob. Without breaking eye contact, her jaw set, she carefully places her hand on that knob. OOoooh, the defiance! I’m itching to take action, and I would, I would, were mother not standing between us. But of course, mum won’t let her get away with that, right?

“Suzie. Leave the door and come here, please.” (And I sigh, inwardly. Here we go!)

Suzie unlatches the door.

Now, her mother is within arm’s reach. There is absolutely nothing to prevent mother from stretching out her arm — she wouldn’t even have to lean! — and pulling the door firmly shut. Instead, she merely tosses more words, more pointless words, into the air. Tosses them into the air, where they dissipate into nothingness. Ineffectual, meaningless nothing.

“Suzie. Leave the door.”

Suzie opens the door.

(Gee. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming, huh?)

“Suzie. I said leave the door.”

Suzie steps out onto the porch.

“Suzie. I said … oh, okay. Okay, you can go out, but stay on the porch!”

We’ll stop here, shall we? You can see the trajectory. I think none of you will be surprised to know Mum and I didn’t get to finish that conversation.

Suzie’s mother is impressed (and truth be known, I think also a little pissed off, some days) at how readily, and without any fuss, her daughter does as I ask. Had I been standing between Suzie and the door, there is absolutely no way at all that she would have touched the latch.

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

Oh, puh-lease. No. It’s because Suzie’s mother does not consistently monitor and maintain the boundaries she attempts to set. I do. I do, not just with Suzie of course, but with all the children. I do, because I’ve been doing this for years, because I know the enormous difference it will make and because, as Hannah expressed it so well not too long ago


I do it because I’m in the business of raising adults. I do it because I want these children to become all they can be.

But I also do it because if I didn’t, I would have FIVE children all ignoring me and dashing every which way, doing exactly what they wanted in every moment, all day long. Can you imagine? The chaos, the noise, the screaming, the violence, the mess?

That? Is my idea of hell on earth. Lordy.

If I had issued the directive, Suzie would have dropped her hand. Period. I might, because her mother was there, have gotten a considering look as she weighed the possibility that Mummy might trump Mary, even in Mary’s home, but even so, I am reasonably confident she wouldn’t have. Had mum not been there, there wouldn’t have been a second’s hesitation. The hand would have come down.

Suzie, however, is three and a half, and well schooled. Cast back a year and a half, though. A year and a half or two years. Cast back that far and re-run the tape with an un-trained Suzie.

Suzie stands in the front hall as we all get out coats on to go out. She’s ready first, and reaches for the door.

“Suzie. You don’t touch the door knob, remember? Only grown-ups open that door.”

Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, gives me a considering look and grabs the door knob.

“Suzie. I said no. Only grown-ups open the door.” And as I speak, I move close, lift her hand off the knob, and, if she seems inclined to reach for it again, lift her to a different area of the floor.

Suzie, being the feisty little thing she is, would probably kick up a bit of a stink at this point. I suspect it was all the stink-kicking a year or two ago that now prevents her mother from taking firm, decisive action. Mum doesn’t want to provoke a fit. (A wry comment about letting the terrorists win flits through my brain…)

Which is why, when I take that essential firm, decisive action, I reward her with a very warm and sunny “Thank you!” and a distracting task.

“Thank you!” because it’s good manners to thank someone when they help you out. The fact that the help wasn’t voluntary is completely irrelevant. The point here is not to punish her for her attempted disobedience, the point is to teach her a Better Way. So, a warm and sunny thanks. Which very often throws them off their disgruntled emotional trajectory, and they’ll smile right back at you.

And then, quickly, give her a task. “Here, sweetie. Would you give Sam her hat, please? Sam needs her hat so she won’t be cold!”

That usually does it. Usually, but not always. If Suzie were determined to throw her fit, if she refused to be distracted from the joy of rage, then I would move into my standard tantrum response. (If you are interested, check out the Tantrum Series tab at the top right.)

So. Issue an instruction, make sure it’s been heard, then FOLLOW THROUGH. Calmly, firmly, politely, implacably.

Every time.

That’s it, that’s all. The caregiver’s “secret” to co-operative children.

Follow through, physically if necessary, and it often is at first. (By ‘physically’, I mean hand-over-hand helping or preventing whatever it was, of course. I do not mean spanking. If you can produce considerate, obedient, kind children without it — and you can — why would you?) Follow through despite the protests, despite the tantrum. Follow through, every time, and it will not be long before there are no tantrums because they just don’t work.

I’m sure a lot of the time when I see lack of follow-through, it’s happening because the parent doesn’t want to subject the caregiver (and themselves) to the struggle that might ensue. But please! Don’t fret! Don’t worry! She won’t criticize, she will applaud! Go for it, because I promise you: When you tell your child to do something and then don’t follow through? You are making your caregiver twitch.

October 17, 2012 - Posted by | manners, parenting, Peeve me, power struggle | ,


  1. OM MY GOD YES!!!! I have the same door rule, and for the same reasons. Yet every day I have to assert and remind why it IS a BIG DEAL.

    It IS! Because really — toddlers wandering into the street untended? Soooo bad for business. 😛

    Comment by Kate | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  2. Me too on the door question. It’s partly a safety issue, partly because if several sturdy toddlers swing from that doorknob every day it will loosen.

    There are SO MANY ways to foster a toddler / preschooler’s thirst for independence, too. Teach them to dress themselves, go to the potty, use a non-sippy cup without spilling, climb into the carseat unassisted… all those little mundane tasks that make everyone’s day run smoother if the child can accomplish them alone.

    I *do* actually step in when one of the children is breaking a house rule, whether the parents are there or not. Mom or Dad’s minute of weakness could result in days of patient re-training for me. I usually phrase it in such a way though as to make the CHILD responsible, so it’s a little bit less like I’m criticizing the parent – so, for example, “SuzieQ, what’s the rule about doors?” [pause pause] “Doors are for grownups, right?” and then the follow-through.

    I’m bollocks at firing problem clients but I’m really quite good at correcting the children when their parents are around. 😀

    Oh, that’s terrific. You’d think I’d be better at it after all these years, but I really hate the feeling that I’m showing the parents up … which I sort of am. Your strategy would side-step that problem very neatly. “What’s the rule about…?” Ha! I am stealing it forthwith.

    Comment by Hannah | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  3. I have the opposite problem so far – it’s my own kids who try to break the rules during pickup. My oldest climbs on the living room furniture. I do step in but probably not as quickly as normal so she repeats her attempt at furniture gymnastics every couple days.

    Question for you – last year I had a 4 year old who was happy throughout the day but turned on the waterworks right when mom got here. She’d done it since she was a baby so mom knew she wasn’t miserable all day but still made me feel bad. Have you experienced this? Any previous posts that would bring me some enlightenment on how to handle?

    Thanks, Lindsey

    Comment by If I had a million hours... | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  4. I have this same problem with my dog training clients. “sit. Sit. SIT!” I don’t take that with dogs and I don’t take it with my kid.

    Comment by IfByYes | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  5. Thank you for this post! Gah! I am beyond happy to know I am not alone. The small one I watch is the same way…constantly defying mom, but behaving for me (most of the time). Why? Because I have the expectation that she will behave…and she does. I set clear limits and rules and small one knows it. Mom constantly has problems and is shocked (and probably PO-ed) when she sees small one behave for me. However, I am not as nice as you and I consistently step on mom’s toes when small one acts out in front of me and mom. The double authority makes small one itch to act out, because she knows mom won’t stop her….too bad for her, I will. And mom can be grumpy all she wants.

    Comment by Brooke | October 17, 2012 | Reply

  6. Haha, I gaped at “Suzie. I said … oh, okay. Okay, you can go out, but stay on the porch!”

    It’s kind of funny when they’re two, but like you said you’re in the business of raising adults. Won’t be long before little Suzie is just grabbing the keys to the family car and then Mommy says, “No, no…okay, you can take the car, just don’t go on the highway.”

    I know that parents don’t look at their toddlers and see the emerging teen, young adult that lingers therein. But they’re there and we are wise to prepare our kids to live in a world that doesn’t think they’re too cute to reprimand and redirect.

    I don’t think Suzie’s mother finds it funny or cute. She’s capitulating because she doesn’t want to start a fight. But fight or no fight, she’s losing the battle, and it will become a more and more important battle — and the stakes higher and higher, as the child gets older. As you rightly note, this is an important lesson for teens. A teen who never learned to respect her parent’s authority is an alarming thing, mostly because of the potential for self-destruction.

    Comment by Sheri | October 18, 2012 | Reply

  7. Ok, here’s one for you. What about dealing with a child who you *have* been consistent with – who you have redirected every time, removed from the offending behaviour every time etc and just when you think you should be reaping the rewards of all that consistency she waits until you physically *can’t* follow through (feeding baby, changing nappy etc)…..?

    Get proactive. Now, how it’s implemented will vary a bit, depending on the child’s age, but in essence it’s this: When you’re going to be in one of those situations, before it starts, you put her in a time out, and she stays there until you’re done. You let her know why it’s happening, of course, to be fair and (the real point!) to discourage the behaviour for next time!

    Comment by Angie | October 20, 2012 | Reply

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