Nanny McPhee: A Refreshing Lesson in Truth and Consequences

While it is true that the story of Nanny McPhee is the self-proclaimed tale of abnormally ill-disciplined children, the struggle of Mr. Brown (played with the usual aplomb by Colin Firth) to teach his children to behave is merely a fantastical metaphor for the quintessential struggle facing all parents. For, in truth, Mr. Brown’s pedagogical quandary isn’t so much about behaviour as it is about the consequences of behaviour. Every good parent wants to protect his or her children from negative consequences. However, at the same time, no responsible parent can ignore the inevitable reality that all children outgrow the bubble and a parent must prepare his or her offspring for what awaits them beyond the doors of the nursery. How does the good parent protect his or her children while still instilling in them the invaluable lesson of cause and effect? And, for the Torah observant parent, the question becomes even more complicated by the fact that it is that parent’s religious duty to instruct his or her children in the twists and turns of not only the scientific and social world but the Divine world, as well.

For many years “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the code of choice throughout many cultures. Yes, getting hit hurts, but a four-year-old child who learned not to stick his hand in the fire because the consequence of said action was a slap was probably much better off than his counterpart who gained such knowledge after half his hand was burned off. It is human nature to act based upon the consequences of our actions. Many survival lessons are gained at the expense of our own comfort, health and well-being. In the harsh and medically unhygienic past, a well-placed and well-timed smack most likely saved more than a few children. Still, there was a cost, namely, that children were disciplined, not educated, about the causal nature of reality; corporal punishments can train but cannot teach. And, inevitably, if no one ever explained to that child the real reason why sticking your hand in fire is not a good idea then that child (provided that childhood punishments have not left the child without any curiosity or fighting spirit) was bound to end up burned one day anyway.

Put another way, the essential axiom of Reward and Punishment in Jewish thought, coupled with the Sinaitic promise of “Na’aseh, we will do” (i.e. obedience) is worthless without the second promise, “V’Nishma, we will listen/understand.” It is not enough to claim obedience, even with the threat of reward and punishment. Only by promising to make an attempt to comprehend the nature of the system, the consequences of our actions, could the Jewish nation assure God that His Torah would survive and thrive. For God’s Word can only actualize to its full potential in the actions of those who aspire to be Tzelem Elokim, Godlike, and not in the mimicry of automatons. Further evidence to the necessity of both paradigms is the fact that children are not held responsible for their transgressions. Even though a child can be instructed in the acts of Jewish law, it is not until he or she is capable of studying and understanding the system that a child can be held responsible within God’s framework of reward and punishment. It is only when a child reaches an age at which he or she can comprehend, can listen, that that child can be held accountable for doing.

In the meantime, who then is held accountable for the sins of the child? The parents. Which implies a bit of a paradox, when you think about it. If children are not yet able to fathom the depths of philosophy necessary for “Nishma” then why is it their parents’ fault that the children sin? The parents can train their children in action but if their children cannot yet grasp the conceptual nature of consequences then it would seem impossible to expect the parents to teach them such concepts. In other words, if one cannot blame a snail for its inability to spell because it lacks the brain capacity to process written language, one certainly cannot blame the snail-trainer for being unable to get the snail to proofread an English essay.

Enter Nanny McPhee (played with a certain special flair by Emma Thompson, who also penned the film’s screenplay) with her delightful new take on “the rod,” guaranteed to prevent child spoilage but with a lot less trauma. With magic cane in hand, Nanny McPhee proceeds, throughout the film, to teach Mr. Brown’s spoiled and suffering children five lessons: 1. To go to bed when they are told, 2. To get up when they are told, 3. To get dressed when they are told, 4. To listen, and 5. To do as they’re told. Nanny McPhee has harnessed the complex, decidedly adult, theme of “Na’aseh V’Nishma” and she has made it suitable for children. For, there is a crucial maxim to be found in the order of this national promise, an important significance to the fact that one must do before one understands. A significance that precedes the very utterance of the promise itself: the trust of the people, which allowed them to utter such words. A trust borne from the comprehension that God’s intentions were noble. A trust only made stronger with each act. Every time the Jews did as they were told, reward and punishment stepped in and established that their trust in God was deserved.

In other words, what is the point of Nanny McPhee’s lessons number 1, 2, and 3, if there exists lesson number 5? Don’t the specific fall under the general? No, because it is only once the Brown children begin to make sense out of the specific rules that they can have any hope of reaching the overarching and vague command inherent in number 5.  First they must do, in a very particular sense. Then they will learn to listen. Then they will be able to do, in an essential sense. Through magic, Nanny McPhee is able to teach these children what the direct consequences will be when they do not go to bed, get up and get dressed. Of course they are too young to understand all the theoretical and underlying concepts involved in a parent’s decision to set bedtime at such and such hour but what these children do begin to understand is the fact that the decision is made with their benefit in mind. And, in the process of leading the Brown children along their first tentative steps in “Na’aseh V’Nishma” Nanny McPhee also teaches Mr. Brown the important lesson that one cannot always shelter one’s children and that, sometimes, to coddle a child is to harm a child.

Nanny McPhee is a film which reminds parents that you cannot simply love and protect your children – you must teach them to be self-sufficient and you must help them to understand why you make them do what they are made to do. Yet, it also reminds children that you cannot simply rely upon your own perceptions – you must begin to open your eyes to the complexities of reality, the details that remain just beyond your reach, for the moment. In other words, children must be taught to trust so that, one day, when they have reached the proper stage, they will have a strong foundation from which to question. And parents must be taught to entrust so that, in the interim, even while children have the buds of questions percolating in their inquisitive minds, they will be able to, of their own accord, do.

In other words, Nanny McPhee is a film which, in no small way, lives up to author, Emma Thompson’s hopes, as expressed in an interview about the film, “for families to go and see it and then to go out afterwards…and for everyone to sit around talking about it, not just the children but the grownups too because…there’s enough to talk about that everyone can take part.” Still, it is highly likely that the post-Nanny McPhee conversations will far outshine the film in depth and memorability. The film is fun and witty but more colour than content. Despite excellent performances by the entire cast, this sweet and wholesome movie never dares to push any envelopes. And it doesn’t want to. Nanny McPhee is a launching pad, an unworthy but apt metaphor for Sinai. It is what has come after Sinai – the volumes of learning, the centuries of study – that is the key to the glory of what transpired at Sinai. If one stops at Sinai, if one stops at “Na’aseh,” if one stops at training a child then one may as well never start. That is lesson number six.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

2006 NISHMA