Every parent wishes they had a magic nanny in their life! So it’s no surprise that throughout the 20th Century writers and film directors have conjured up many a magical caregiver to fix familial problems. Typically in these tales a tough but kind nanny visits a family in disarray—often composed of naughty children and preoccupied parents—heals upsets and sets things in order. Literary tales with nannies at their centre have frequently been adapted for the screen, most famously in the wildly popular Mary Poppins films of 1964 and 2018.
The recurring feature of these tales reflects a commonly held wish that families have for a touch of “magic”, or super powered help, during trying times.
The theme also reflects the centrality of “magic” to childhood, as a time when imaginative play is central to growth and the development of social skills. These nannies actively ignite the imaginations and touch the hearts of both the children and the families they work with: that’s what truly makes them super powered!
Below we explore some of our favourite nannies in literature and film, and explain how they inspire the work of Kudos nannies, and of all of us who are in some way involved in caring for children. Let us know who your favourite is below!
All of the tales referenced originated during the twentieth century, with the earliest written in 1904. They reflect something of the increasing interest in childcare over this century, and of the important place of the nanny within the history of childcare over the past 120 years. They also reflect an increased need to delegate childcare to paid carers over this period, in light of increasing female independence and female engagement in work.
Mary Poppins, from Pamela L. Travers’ Mary Poppins and Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins
In the original Travers short stories (1934), Mary Poppins is portrayed as a remarkable and very important person with otherworldly talents necessary to the workings of the universe itself: she bids the seasons to come and go and places the stars in the sky. Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, who first appeared on our screens in 1964, has a slightly more limited magical scope, but still displays extraordinary abilities: she can clean up a desolate room with the flick of her fingers, fly through the air, jump into drawings and store all manner of things in that famous handbag.
Another interesting difference between the original short stories and the Disney movie is that Mary Poppins leaves the Banks family at the end of the first movie, forever we presumed, until she was revived in the 2018 film Mary Poppins Returns. In the original short stories, the need for Mary never ceases and her consistency and capacity to return shines through: she never says goodbye, but only “au revoir”, until the next time she returns to care for the children.
Set in 1910, the Mary Poppins film reflects changing trends in the organisation of women’s lives—and in turn in the structuring of families—of the times. The family’s mother Mrs Banks is consumed by the women’s suffrage movement, increasing the family’s need for a nanny as she seeks time away from them to participate in the fight for women’s votes. Propaganda of the times taunted like women with pictures of mother-less families and traumatised children as a consequence of their deviant feminism (one cartoon of a crying child was framed by the text “Nobody loves me – guess I’ll be a Suffragette”). Thankfully, the needs and desires of women to define themselves outside of the family home are now accepted and to varying degrees encouraged.
In both mediums, Mary Poppins represents what we may wish a nanny could be: someone magical, firm and utterly life changing. She appears in response to a genuine need for extra help in light of the increased independence of the family’s mother. Mary Poppins reminds us of the pivotal role of the nanny not only in the lives of some children, but also increasingly in the lives of women. Many modern women seek to delegate their motherly super powers to a highly capable, trained nanny so they may pursue careers or interests outside of the home with confidence.
Mary Poppins also inspires us not to forget our wonder and imagination in our interactions with children as their parents and carers, alongside reliable presence, boundary setting and inspiring role modelling.
Nana, from Peter Pan by JM Barrie
A nanny who is also… a dog! This must be every child’s dream. But the Darling family’s father George is somewhat embarrassed to have to employ a dog to care for his children on what he feels to be his meagre income, in Scottish writer J.M Barries’ Peter Pan. With Nana Barries jokes about the economic privilege needed at the time to hire a nanny who was actually human. Luckily though for the Darlings, Nana the dog proves to be very good at the job assigned to her: she looks after Wendy, John and Michael with precision and care.
Nana was first depicted in Barries’ original stage production by a man in a dog suit, and was later joyfully animated in the 2002 Walt Disney film adaptation of the story. In the notes for the original 1904 play version of the story Barrie writes: “like all treasures she was born to it… we shall see her chiefly inside the house, but she was just as exemplary outside, escorting the two elders to school with an umbrella in her mouth, for instance, and butting them back into line if they strayed.” Here he emphasises Nana’s devotion, intuitive knack for childcare, and her skills both inside and outside of the home—attributes we may all aspire to!
Nanny McPhee, from Nurse Matilda by Christiana Brand
Christiana Brand first brought this magical nanny to life in a short story for her 1962 anthology Naughty Children, expanding the idea into novels two years afterward. Brand’s Nurse Matilda books were adapted into the film Nanny McPhee in 2005 and followed up by a sequel, Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, in 2010.
The film portrays a distinctly ugly Nanny who magically appears to set seven “very clever and very naughty” children straight after they have chased away all of their previous nannies. With lots of discipline and a little magic, Nanny McPhee transforms the children’s lives and becomes a little less ugly each time they learn a lesson (a wart removed here, a little less hair there…). She is firm, but kind and attentive: the kids are astonished, for instance, that she remembers all of their names after the first day of meeting her.
In the film, the children gradually learn to respect Nanny McPhee and to become responsible and helpful toward their haphazard father, making her less and less needed. Nanny McPhee eventually leaves, reminding the saddened family of the rule she recited to them on her first night: “When you need me, but do not want me, then I must stay. When you want me, but no longer need me, then I have to go”.
This moment reflects her selflessness and lack of vanity, and the sense that she (as Nanny par excellence) is needed elsewhere, by another family stricken by hardship and chaos. There are people in our lives who love, teach and guide us, and do such a good job that eventually, it is time for them to leave, so that we can integrate their presence within us to inspire our own individual endeavours and development.
Nanny McPhee teaches us about the value of selflessness in our work with children, and about the importance of saying goodbye at just the right moment.
Maria, from The Sound of Music
Maria arrives singing and dancing, and concealing unsurprising nerves, at the imposing Von Trapp family household in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musical play The Sound of Music, adapted into the much-loved 1965 film of the same name. In the musical, Maria’s free-spiritedness and kindness are contrasted with Captain von Trapp’s military-style treatment of his children. She counters his harsh, disciplinary approach to childcare by getting to know each child on his or her own terms, while re-inserting fun, song and play into the children’s lives. While this initially creates some tension between the Captain and Maria, she is eventually welcomed with open arms into the family—and later becomes the Captain’s wife and the children’s surrogate mother.
The musical was based on the real Maria Von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The chief difference between the memoir and the musical is that the real Von Trapps insisted that Georg Von Trapp was a warm and gentle-hearted father toward his children.
Why then did the musical depict him as a hard and imposing Patriarch? Perhaps because this change has the effect of emphasising Maria’s healing effect more strongly, by way of contrast with Georg. Unfortunately though this exercise of artistic licence upset the real Von Trapps for its inaccuracy. Nonetheless, both the real and the fictional Maria Von Trapp inspire us to remember the value of joy, song, warmth and creativity in attempts to nurture children to grow and to flourish.
Mrs. Doubtfire, from Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
In 1987 the children’s author Anne Fine wrote a book about a family whose mother limits the amount of time the father spends with their children following a divorce. In the story, the mother opens an advert to hire a nanny and unwittingly hires the children’s father, who has disguised himself as a female nanny. The father uses this disguise to spend more time with his children, who fall in love all over again with their father in this newly devoted guise.
In 1993 the book was adapted into the successful comedy-drama film Mrs. Doubtfire starring the late, inimitable Robin Williams as the eponymous character. Mrs. Doubtfire’s qualities are those of diligence, genuine interest in the children, good humour and warmth. The Mrs. Doubtfire story teaches us that parents are ultimately irreplaceable, but that the nanny role offers a unique opportunity to bring new life, joy and laughter into the lives of families and children. The story also reflects the increasing involvement of fathers in childcare in recent times.
How do these famous super nannies of literature inspire the work of Kudos?
Kudos recognises the common familial need for something beyond the ordinary—for a dose of “magical”, super powered help—during challenging times, as expressed in these works of film and literature.
Kudos uses the latest child-development research to understand what kind of qualities and expertise nannies will need to offer beyond-the-ordinary help to parents and children.
Kudos uses this research to provide nannies with training in child-development and with support every step of their nannying journey, so that they have the best chance of tapping into their super powers to offer help for your family.
Kudos supports families by discerning what super nanny qualities are most needed from the perspective of parents and children. Kudos helps families to find the right match by linking them up with our trained nannies and supporting them through the processes of interviewing, hiring, drawing up a contract and payroll to open up more magical time for your family.
Kudos also provides articles and research summaries in the hope of informing and inspiring parents, care-givers and nannies alike.