Friday, July 24, 2015

Well Begun Is Half Done

I’m back!  I do want to apologize for my blogging absence lately.  I can’t believe it’s been over half a year since my last post.  A lot has happened in between and I can’t put my finger on a single reason for the hiatus, other than “life.”  I’ve since had landmarks galore; I graduated with my master’s degree, moved back to my hometown, bought a house, and earned my marriage and family therapy license!  Also notable in February I accepted a job providing therapy to a population I never expected in an environment I’ve never imagined as an option.  Working in an inpatient psychiatric facility has expanded my horizons and been a tremendous opportunity for my experience and professional growth.  But it has also had an impact on my personal mental health, and in the interest of balancing my new life, I left the blog light off.  I’ve definitely missed it, and things are finally starting to settle down for me.  Recently I got the urge to finally write a post I've had bouncing around in my head for a while, and it was great to dust off the old blog again.  So without further ado... welcome back and I hope you enjoy!

Often while watching one of my favorite films, Mary Poppins, I draw parallels between her work with the Banks family and the techniques used in family therapy.   I absolutely love that there's a strong connection there, and I'd like to break it down.

The first thing to point out about the story is its initial “problem children” angle.  Oftentimes families present with a crisis or challenge and it’s easiest to blame the children for the disruption.  This is because they tend to act out behaviorally, in a way that can be measured like “tantrums,” “disobedience,” or “truancy.”  They don’t have effective language yet, so the behavior IS the language to signal something’s wrong.  But to many parents, these behaviors begin to become one in the same with the children; they become the problem rather than the manifestations of external factors.  In reality, problematic behavior is a response to something deeper, something missing: stress, instability, a feeling of insecurity.  And this can clearly be seen in this example. 

While comical characters, it’s important to look at how the Banks parents appear to their children.  Both George and Winifred Banks are involved elsewhere, leaving the children with no stable caretaker.  Nanny after nanny come to try to alleviate the symptoms, to put a band-aid on the children’s issues, but they only exacerbate the situation.  The children don’t want temporary nannies, they want their parents.  As a way to cry for help they act out: running away, terrorizing the nannies, talking back.   In response the parents only search for more strict nannies.  This is an ineffective solution, only further depriving the children of the warmth and love they so need and desire.  A family therapist using the MRI Strategic method would see this as a runaway feedback loop and search for an alternate solution at the appropriate level. 

It’s even interesting to me to dive into the reasoning behind the parents’ misdirection.  George loses himself in work because of the  current society’s expectations that “in the age of men” he is lord of his "dominion.”  His place is in the workforce and Winifred’s is in the home.  Contrarily, Winifred bucks this notion of society, pouring herself into activism and the fight for women’s rights.  She dare not defy George to his face, however, and is expertly attuned to what may upset or please him.  She is the peacekeeper of the home while fighting the good fight outside of it.  Activism makes her feel important and accomplished because George takes his masculine expectations of the home most seriously.  In the midst of this marital struggle, the children are lost and left behind.  George values consistence and schedule (to a rigid extent) while Winifred fares better in chaos and unpredictability (leading to unclear expectations).  In this case, Feminist Family Theory may prove effective to help the couple come to terms with society’s expectations on gender roles, and in turn relieve them of the pressure they feel as a result.

Meanwhile, Structural Family Theory emphasizes the value of a healthy balance between rigid and diffuse boundaries between members.  If the boundaries are too diffuse the members become enmeshed: lacking individuality and order.  If they are too rigid the members become disengaged: lacking warmth and connection.  This translates into family rules and interactions as well.  Winifred likes to discuss things, and when the children provide input for their choice of nanny she humors them by listening.  She is flighty and appears naïve, yet kind.  George, on the other hand, insults her nanny-choosing ability and dismisses the children’s advertisement, to the extent of ripping it up and throwing it in the fireplace – the ultimate rejection of the kids’ opinions.  He has expectations, yet is cold.  These two extremes prove that neither is ideal and this conflict has obviously contributed to the current family crisis. 

Finally, the much adored Mary Poppins arrives on the scene.  Kind, yet extremely firm, not old-fashioned, she sells herself quite strategically to Mr. Banks and begins her work immediately.  The children are confused at first by this nanny who is so starkly different than any caretaker they’ve yet encountered.  There is resistance, of course, as there always is in the face of a disruption to the norm.  Even the most dysfunctional family’s actions serve a function, even if only to keep to what’s comfortable – this stability state is called “homeostasis.”  When they test Mary only to find she is unwavering in her expectations and yet fun to be around at the same time, they quickly give up the self-defense walls they put up initially.  As mentioned above, they thrive off of structure and having a caretaker from which they can feel a sense of safety, security, and stability. 

Mary also lays down expectations of her own.  She gives herself a “trial week,” implying that this is not to be a permanent thing.  Therapists do this too, and define the length of treatment from the beginning, lest families become attached and helpless on their own.  She is a mechanism, through which the family will be improved, not the cure itself.  She keeps things very down-to-earth, while dabbling in playful fantasy; this keeps the children engaged while making sure they’re grounded in reality as well.  Playfulness is a necessity in working with children in any field.  As mentioned in previous posts, play is the language of children.  Mary understands this, which is why using magic to clean the nursery and going on fantastic outings is a part of her repertoire.  She uses humor as well, which is highly valuable to kids, yet slips in some smart sarcasm every now and then (“you know best, as usual”).  Very confident and experienced therapists use this as a technique in itself.  Sometimes pointing out the ineffectiveness of a family’s current efforts in just the right way can give them a different perspective.

My favorite parts of Mary’s approach are the elements reminiscent of Strategic therapy.  She makes cleaning fun, so that children actually desire to do more of it.  (“I don’t want to go on an outing, I want to tidy up the nursery again!”)  Paradoxical interventions are used, as she sings  “Stay Awake” so that the defiant children will resist direction and do as she wishes, not what she says.  Some call it reverse psychology, but we call it prescribing the symptom.  Also, her flawless indirect directive during “The Life You Lead,” in which she convinces Mr. Banks that taking the children to work with him was his idea, makes my therapist heart sing.  The immediate denial of fantastic events after “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” brings the children back to reality and shows that a caretaker can be both silly and serious, but can’t be both all the time.  It doesn’t always make sense while she’s doing this but in the end she gets the response she desires.

Throughout all of this, George Banks gets more and more irritated at Mary Poppins, despite the fact that the children are happier and no longer acting out.  He’s confused at the sudden change, at the disruption of his “known,” his homeostasis.  He’s used to thinking that he has control (even if he never really did) and the fact that he doesn’t understand this just makes him feel even more powerless.  He feels “undermined,” illustrated by his demand that his piano be in tune even though he doesn’t play.  He’s “out of sorts” and grasping at any semblance of control over his “dominion.”  This is why Mary’s strategy to have him take the kids to work is important.  She knows he needs to feel a sense of control and puts the kids right in a position for him to take the parenting reins.  While Strategic, this is also Structural reconstruction, as the parental subsystem should hold appropriate hierarchy over the children subsystem.  Unfortunately this ends in once again another power struggle with the kids, which is handled ineffectively. 

George has good intentions to impress but ultimately boggles the children and makes them feel intimidated.  Mary had emphasized kindness and searching for the little joys in life – something that Mr. Banks generally overlooks (“He can’t see past the end of his nose”).  This is why feeding the birds seemed much more important to the children than Mr. Banks.  Again, here we see Mr. Banks attempt a misguided solution by pressuring Michael more and more.  He talks long-term investments, which is way over the children’s heads, as kids can’t really think future-oriented yet.  We know how this ends, with a very large consequence in a run on the bank.

Afterward the children know something unfavorable happened.  When they desperately relate the situation to Bert they say, “You should have seen the look on his face, he doesn’t like us at all.”  Bert uses metaphoric language to try to get the kids to understand Mr. Banks’ perspective – another intervention helpful for understanding and communicating about the issues.  “Caged up” is a metaphor for his isolation in the lone power-holder role, he “fends for himself”, and Bert enlists children to give their father “help.”  He gives them a sense of agency and humanizes Mr. Banks, making him seem more relatable as a lost soul. 

Bert also shows his strength during his conversation with George Banks.  As George opens up to him, complaining of when “things began to happen,” everything “higgledy piggledy” and Mary bringing “chaos in her wake,”  Bert is frank with him and reminds him that he’s missing his kids’ childhoods.  He reflects back to George how he feels; he needs to act as a father, but in a way that makes him think twice about the effects.  He’s just experiencing a crisis in his normalcy (that homeostasis again) and more important is how he chooses to be a father from here on out.  Once George is fired from the bank he is ultimately freed from those rigid expectations of being the perfect lord of his castle.  His paradigm shifts and he is able to spontaneously surprise his children with mending their kite, and ultimately beginning to mend their family. 

In the end we know Mary Poppins must leave, although we’ve become so attached to her by this point.  When it’s pointed out to her that the children care more about their father than her, she replies, “that's as it should be.”  Again, Mary played the perfect therapist: becoming part of the system just long enough to restructure and refresh the family, and then leaving them to continue making progress on their own.   It was a jolly holiday, and now that the winds have changed - literally and metaphorically - she disappears.  

It's debatable who the story of Mary Poppins is really about.  Some say the kids, some say Mr. Banks, some say Mary and Bert.  It's all a matter of perspective, but in my opinion the entire system is the subject of the film.  In true systems theory form, it's all interconnected. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and it's obvious at the end when the happy family unit is complete and functioning well.  It's important to view families in this way, especially when working to improve them.  No one member is more important or significant than the others, and you never know how one is affecting the rest.  In this way we can take a lot away from this playful children's tale.  It's practically perfect in every way.


  1. The family dynamics in Mary Poppins were over my head as a kid but are my favourite part as an adult. I love this post! You totally identify everything I think, even the things I didn't know I was thinking. This movie always surprises me by how layered it is, honestly... it is so much deeper than it seems! Also, congrats on the license! :D

    1. Yes a lot of the film went over my head as a kid as well! I love making new connections and seeing things with different perspective every viewing. I think a lot of it is identifiable and relatable for a lot of people, which explains much of its popularity. Thank you for the kind words!