Even though it was published almost a year ago, I am finally getting the chance to read “Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” by Laura Ingalls Wilder and edited by Pamela Smith Hill. It is a thorough, incredibly well-researched work that reconciles the historical fiction of the “Little House” books and the real events of Laura’s life and I would say that even if I weren’t addicted to the “Little House” books as a “half-pint”. I even dressed up as Laura one year for Halloween and begged my mother to make me a dress and a bonnet.
A huge part of the appeal of those books was the curiosity we all have on what it was like to grow up in the olden days on the American frontier. Of course so much has changed. For starters, we have electricity and cars. And I am totally okay with buying my candles and soap without having to make them. Same goes for my clothes. I am also grateful to modern medicine for vaccines and antibiotics that protect our children from childhood diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria. Children often died during outbreaks and the ones who lived sometimes suffered lifelong effects from their illnesses. Remember how Mary went blind?
In other ways parenting hasn’t changed and looking back, the “Little House” books contain so many lessons for our children that are still relevant almost 150 years later. Here are 8 I have compiled.
1. Playing outside is the best. Unless there was a blizzard, Laura spent all of her free time playing outside. She made play houses under trees, forts on the banks of Plum Creek, and generally ran around the prairie until it was close to dark and it was time to bring the cows home. This poster which accompanied “Pioneer Girl” shows her love of nature and the great outdoors in general. Fast forward to 2015 and I try to get my own children outside every day. Aside from the healthy physical activity outdoor play provides it’s wonderful watching them discover nature around them, whether it’s admiring a sunset or watching them orchestrate a chestnut or leaf hunt.
2. Sibling rivalry is very real. As a younger sister, Laura often felt jealous of her older sister Mary, especially when grown-ups commended Mary for her polite behavior and golden curls while Laura had brown hair and liked to find trouble. Not much has changed here. Brothers and sisters will get jealous of each other. It is going to happen.
3. Travel is an important way for kids to see and appreciate the world around them. By the time Laura was a tween, she had traveled and lived all over the central part of the US. She was born in Wisconsin, moved to Kansas, then went back to the big woods of Wisconsin, then on to Minnesota, spent a year in Iowa, and went back to Minnesota before settling on the South Dakota prairie when she was 12. As an adult, she also lived in Florida and ultimately settled in Mansfield, Missouri. Similarly, my own young children have visited a number of states. They were born in Connecticut and I moved them out here to Illinois last year but they have also spent time on trips to Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Because of that, they have been able to admire and enjoy woods, mountains, lakes, ocean, beaches, big cities and yes, even the prairie.
4. Obtaining an education is a high priority. Even though the family moved around, making sure the Ingalls girls somehow went to school was a huge priority to the family. Laura’s mother Caroline was a schoolteacher and highly educated for her time and it was very important to her that her daughters learn to read and receive an education. This was difficult as some of the towns had not yet built schoolhouses but they found a way. You could say it was an early version of homeschool. Today, we emphasize education so much, whether it’s the time spent helping and checking homework or college prep.
5. Music makes our lives richer and fuller. Pa’s fiddle is a constant throughout the series and some of Laura’s fondest memories are of her father playing at dances or more commonly at nighttime for the family. He played traditional songs like “Auld Lang Syne”, “The Arkansas Traveler” and “My Darling Nellie Gray”. Music creates long lasting memories and the series concludes with her hearing Pa’s fiddle play in her head as a newlywed. Now, I always have something playing on the computer and piano lessons are important here. Plus, as a family we love concerts and I am certain my children will have similar memories that involve music once they too are grown.
6. The chores still have to get done. While these days we can cross milking the cow and harvesting hay off the list, the modern house contains plenty of work to go around. We still have dishes, we still have laundry. My yard is also currently full of leaves. This work is a huge part of making sure we are working towards the goal of raising independent, capable human beings who one day will be on their own.
7. Children rely on their parents to help them through tough times. No doubt about it, growing up on the frontier was seriously trying and tragedy lurked around every corner. After her sister Mary lost her sight, Laura had to grow up very quickly as Pa kept reminding her she had to “be Mary’s eyes”. During “The Long Winter” of 1880-1881, one of the harshest in history, the town almost starved when the trains bringing food and provisions stopped running for the winter. As physically weak and mentally discouraged as Laura was, Pa kept encouraging her when she thought the winter would never end, “No,” said Pa. “It’s got to quit sometime and we don’t. It can’t lick us. We won’t give up.” Even now, our children certainly deal with their share of hardship and we need to help them see it through. Pets die, relatives die, not to mention there may be bullies like Nellie Oleson at school.
8. Cherish the little moments. Perhaps my favorite scene in all of the “Little House” books is the one that concludes “These Happy Golden Years” as well as “Pioneer Girl” when Laura gets married. That night, after the wedding ceremony and family gathering, Laura moves into the house that Almanzo built on the South Dakota prairie for them. At sunset, the newlywed couple sits outside on the porch in appreciation of their happiness and the beauty of the night unfolding on the prairie around them. Laura’s words say it all, “I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all.” The simplest moments really are the most precious, whether it’s listening to your baby giggle, watching your child read independently, or countless others. And they are all just as joyful as a quiet prairie on a summer night.
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