Reel To Real: Mary Poppins Wasn’t Just Sweet-Talking Those Kids

Ask most parents and they'll tell you a spoonful of sugar really works.

The Reel Story: Over the years, we’ve learned a lot of lessons from Disney movies — beauty is only skin deep, don’t trust stepmothers who look like witches, fairy godmothers can hook you up with a new whip and some bling.

And in “Mary Poppins,” which hits stores next week with a 40th anniversary DVD special edition, we learn perhaps the sweetest lesson. Julie Andrews stars as beloved nanny Mary Poppins, who floats — literally, with the aid of her umbrella — into the dour lives of two turn-of-the-century London children desperately in need of some fun. Through songs, pretending and her own unique way of doing things, she teaches the children, and eventually their parents, that life isn’t all work, and that even life’s more unpleasant duties can be made better with the right attitude. One example is their evening dose of medicine, administered from an appropriately sinister looking bottle. Poppins sings that “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” and the children seem to take to the medicine like candy.

Was Mary Poppins onto something? Should you really be dumping sugar (or even Equal) into your medicine?

The Real Story: It seems the old girl might have been spot on. Children (and a lot of adults) need a little help when taking their medicine, but while experts in the fields of sugar and children support the sweet stuff, your doctor isn’t likely to love the idea (hey, two out of three ain’t bad).

“As a physician, I wouldn’t recommend giving sugar along with medication to a child.” Dr. Charlotte Grayson, senior medical editor for WebMD, explained. “But it is true that many children’s medications are formulated with flavorings, like bubblegum, to make them more palatable.”

Of course, the power of sugar is held in higher regard by those who see it as a tool of their trade. “Now that pharmaceutical companies are no longer adding booze to our medicine, a spoonful of sugar more than ever helps it go down,” observed New York baker and caterer Deann Horack.

The ultimate word may come from those on the frontlines, however — the parents who have to cram well-meaning medications down the throats of their sick kids. “There is a reason that pharmacies conspicuously advertise flavored syrup at their pickup counters,” first-time parent Mike Appelstein of St. Louis said of his experience with his 3-month-old daughter.

Or, as parent Owen Murphy of Wallingford, Connecticut, said, “Sure, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but sometimes you gotta drop an atomic bomb on your kids to get their heads on straight.”

While no one is advocating overdosing children with sugar, liquor or atomic energy, it seems clear that Mary Poppins’ lesson holds true both on and off the silver screen: Anything as unpleasant as taking your medicine can be made a little more tolerable with the addition of something sweet.

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