Mary Poppins & The Attention Seeking Child

Mary Poppins by Disney, is not the P.L. Travers version. In the original books, the Banks children live in a dark, sugarless world which is brightened by Mary only inasmuch as she shows them a different side of life. A magical side of a world where infants are forced to forget their union with the universe by the rigours of our society.

I can stream films all year long on Netflix but when they are part of a Christmas line up they take on a more magical quality. Childhood memories of circling which films I would see in the TV Magazine back when we only had three television channels have instilled a love for the tinsel packed television schedule we have in Britain. Equip me with a bumper pack of mince pies and I'm good to go.

Which is why I found myself in front of Mary Poppins with my children yesterday afternoon (hey, I've only seen it around 19 times).

Mary Poppins by Disney, is not the P.L. Travers version. In the original books, the Banks children live in a dark, sugarless world which is brightened by Mary only inasmuch as she shows them a different side of life. A magical side of a world where infants are forced to forget their union with the universe by the rigours of our society. Mary Poppins herself is vain, harsh and sometimes downright horrible. She brings the children up with an iron rod whilst their parents are rarely present. But the books depict earlier times and were themselves a therapeutic outlet for a troubled author who was brought up when tough love was the only sort of love you gave (or got). Yet valuable remnants of the book remain in the movie. Predominantly that of child neglect. They're well-heeled. Well fed. But unhappy. The children make several attempts to get their parents' attention, each time more heartbreaking than the last. In the beginning, they rarely smile. Having swallowed the movie and its sugar coating numerous times I hardly expected a Disneyfied Mary Poppins to smack me in the head with an uncomfortable truth.

But this was the first time I had seen it as a parent.

We all have methods of coping with the world around us. As children we can choose among several. I chose compulsive compliance in order to try be cared for. I realised my parents were pleased by good grades, by good behaviour, by smiles, flirting, lauging at their jokes. I seemed happy whilst in reality, I was also masking a great deal of terror. The terror of abandonment. Later I came to realise that no matter how compliant I was, I would never be accepted. So I turned from compulsive compliance to compulsive opposition (and could use either one depending on the person or people around me). In compulsive opposition I became a smouldering volcano of emotion ready to blow at the slightest provocation. I rebelled during adolesence, drank, smoked and had sex in abundance... even whilst the semblance of compusive compliance remained. So much so that I lied about much of my opposition, just in case I could still pass muster as the good girl.

So in Mary Poppins, you have rebellious children with shaky self-esteem, treated as assets by their father and with an absentee mother. They alternately try to please, or run away from a succession of nannies unable to abide by the expectations and strict roles forced upon them, desperate for acceptance, attention and love which - at least in the Disney film - they get from Mary Poppins; but one who as in the books, will only stay until the wind changes. It's the threat of constant abandonment.

But Jane and Michael Banks could have pulled out a third strategy. Withdrawal. If I could not get the love I needed from being a good girl or a bad girl, I got it by being the quiet girl. Something which my parents saw as truly out of character and prompted the question 'Is anything wrong?' I got attention. Result! And now, I see it in my own daughter. Sometimes we have to coax answers out of her. When she gets into trouble, she often retreats into her own stubborn world. Just like I used to. And so the question of my nightmares beckons.

Does my daughter feel unloved?

I'm not sure if there is any child who doesn't invoke one or all three of these compulsions into their personality - compliance, opposition and withdrawal. Because these three behaviours accomplish what they are designed to do. To help a child get the attention they need to survive and I don't believe that there is any parent in the world who is able to give a child all the attention they crave. We don't have to be as bad as the Banks parents to have children who act out.

But if children get stuck in these modus operandi as adults, then their lives will be difficult and full of emotional manipulation. They can become part of your reality, and consume your identity. They get you the attention from others you think you need to survive, and absolve you of taking responsibilty for your own needs. To get the attention we have mistaken for love. I think I've worked enough on my self-esteem to eradicate these habits from my life, and yet I still must force myself to respond to texts, emails and sometimes even questions made to me in person. Sometimes I simply shut off. I need a lot of my own space. Because a habit can become ingrained even if the original cause is gone. It's what makes me think that maybe my own habit of withdrawal is prompting my daughter to try and get my attention.

I can't make my child into an adult before she is ready to become one. You cannot give the third eye of adulthood to your child, they must develop it themselves. I cannot explain to her yet that perhaps the reason she withdraws is because she thinks it is the best way to get our attention. And even if I could it wouldn't mean she could stop doing it. She's not even wrong for doing it. Her purpose of life right now is to survive. To be loved. She thinks by getting more of our attention she will. Love is not attention. But the difference is subtle. Love generates attention. Love is intangible. Attention is not. We can generate attention. We cannot generate love. So we try to get attention hoping that the outward act is a signal of the inner feeling.

Do we play with our iPhones too much? Do we dedicate the appropriate amount of time to reading? Drawing? Playing? What is enough and is it ever enough? I have no idea. But I still have to try.

It's never too early to make New Year's resolutions. So this year, as well as loving my children with all my might which requires no effort, I will be creating new habits. Short regular bursts of positive attention. To make more time for reading with them. Drawing with them. Playing with them... of course iPhone free. I will try to avoid her unconscious emotional manipulation to get more attention or reward it, but it's difficult. I cannot show her I love her by reacting to her strategies, but nor can I show her love by ignoring them. Because what mother in the world leaves their child to withdraw and doesn't come with the question 'Is anything wrong?'...

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