Braids, bonnets, a horse named Bunny, and hunky Almanzo Wilder -- Little House on the Prairie was a staple in my childhood television line-up. But recently, through the modern-day miracle of weekend rerun marathons, the show has become an unlikely source of parenting inspiration. Almost 40 years after the show premiered, much of Charles and Caroline (Pa and Ma) Ingalls's no-nonsense approach to raising their three girls has stood the test of time.
As a kid, I watched the family work through a big problem in each one-hour episode. Whether it was Laura being jealous over Nellie's pretty things or Mary being teased and called "four eyes," I enjoyed the show because I could relate. Growing up has never been easy. Now, as a parent, I am more appreciative of how Pa and Ma handled the girls' challenges with a calm approach and solid lessons. Can all of us modern-day dads and moms learn a few things from these pioneering parents? Yes -- and here are some of the ones I learned.
Ma often shared her own childhood experiences to help her girls through a difficult situation. When elementary school-aged Laura struggled with a crush on Johnny Johnson, Ma told her how she also experienced heartache with a young crush, reminding Laura not to change to make someone love her. As a parent, your own childhood and growing-up stories can be a creative way to drive home a life lesson. If you were bullied as a kid, maybe perspective has given you the ability to help your own child based on what you learned. My own kids find a commonality in my stories as long as I tell them in a nonpreachy way that doesn't make my childhood sound harder than their own.
Nothing brought the family together better than Pa playing his fiddle. Singing radio songs in the car, karaoke on a weekend, or lullabies before bedtime may be far removed from Walnut Grove rituals, but they can be enjoyable ways to gather everyone and bond with the kids. Plus, in my house, nothing turns a bad mood around faster than my middle son playing Star Wars music on the piano.
Even when a mountain of excuses stands in the way, help your child take responsibility for bad behavior. The tussles between Laura and Nellie often ended with Ma holding the hand of her spirited child in Oleson's Mercantile as Laura apologized, even though her archenemy was equally to blame. Ma knew that Nellie's bad behavior was no excuse for Laura to also misbehave. When battles brew between my boys, I can expect to hear "but he started it" or "he hit me first," but by focusing each child on his own actions instead of the other person's conduct, I have helped them take responsibility for their actions.
There were no washers or dryers on the prairie, but Ma didn't worry about dirty laundry -- she still let her girls go fishing, play ball, and explore the countryside, unlike Nellie, who often played in the parlor. Dirty clothes can be a hassle, but kids need to be kids and that should involve a lot of opportunities for them to have fun, even if it means getting messy once in a while. My best childhood memories include my parents letting me have fun with mud pies, leaf piles, campouts, and sandy shoes.
Cleaning the barn, helping with dinner -- the Ingalls kids always had meaningful chores that were critical to the family's survival. Their tasks made them feel like a vital part of something bigger, which modern-day kids need to experience. Responsibility can be learned only if a child is entrusted with it. Ask an older child to help a sibling with homework; put the kids in charge of growing a section of the garden, or include them in meal preparation. Even when it feels like having kids help will slow down our hectic days, this is an important part of their growing up journey; a late dinner cooked by the kids will help all of us further down the road.
The holiday episodes were often tearjerkers, but one season had the kids working hard to figure out how to get money to buy gifts for their family. Who can forget when Laura bought her mom a wood stove by selling her beloved horse to Nellie? Instead of handing the kids a few bucks to buy gifts, teach them the importance and value of saving up, making a gift, or volunteering their time. The experience and effort is a great reward, and one that has meaning for the gift giver and receiver. Every Christmas, I saw true joy on my young niece's face when she handed me a little gift she saved up for or made, and I know my kids feel it too when we volunteer at the local soup kitchen or make holiday gifts for our sponsored child overseas.
From Doc Baker to Reverend Aldon to Miss Beadle, the entire town cared for the kids in the community (even Nellie and Willie!). Even if you don't live in a small town, creating a trustworthy safety net for your child is vital to her upbringing. Extra eyes can catch a problem you may not see or help your child in a crucial moment. It takes a village, so build positive relationships with the adults, whether they're friends, families, or neighbors in your child's life. When Mary intentionally misplaced her glasses after being teased about wearing them, her teacher, Miss Beadle, helps Mary regain the confidence to put her glasses back on. Teachers can play a key role in a child's life, so I engage my children's teachers to make sure the kids have good support when my husband deploys with the Army.
Around the dinner table, in the barn, or on the wagon, Pa always provided a clear explanation of what his children were supposed to learn from a situation. When Jack, the family dog, died in the barn, Pa immediately talked to Laura about her guilt over how she treated the dog, giving assurance that her feelings were normal and a part of the grieving process for anyone we love. Because my kids' experience with the passing of our cat didn't wrap up neatly in a one-hour episode, I make sure not to dismiss the questions they still have about her death. I still try to teach in the moment (like Pa did!) even if it means deep questions in the car on the way to soccer.
The sound of Pa's wagon wheels always brought someone running out of the little house with a big smile and Caroline happily saying, "Oh, Charles!" So greet your kids (and partners) with a hug and kiss, not a litany of issues, after work every day. When the kids get off the bus, I remind myself not to add to their worries by starting off with questions about tests or reminding them of what still need to be accomplished. Instead, I give them time to decompress and share something positive so we can enjoy a good moment after their long day away.
Life wasn't perfect on the prairie, but Pa and Ma's bedtime talks over a bowl of popcorn got them on the same parenting page before the next day began. Too often a busy day gives way to the next. After Ma talked to Laura about her crush on Johnny Johnson, Ma and Pa talked about the situation at bedtime. My husband and I don't discuss life's problems over a bowl full of popcorn in bed, but I often make a list of things that are going on with the kids so I don't forget to talk about them at the end of the work day. Ultimately, the biggest lessons Little House on the Prairie taught me are to slow down in my daily life and make purposeful parenting decisions before the chaos of life takes over.
Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.