Everything I need to know I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder

As we have already established, I have a somewhat unorthodox idea of what is appropriate children’s literature.  I prefer not to expose my kids to violence in its many forms – whether war or droids.  However, I don’t think sexuality – when explained in a healthy way – ought to be taboo.  My strange sense of propriety extends beyond books to life; I want to maintain their innocence about things like video games and Spongebob, but I have no problem explaining things like homelessness and bigotry.

As Zachary graduated to chapter books, I decided to start reading him the Little House series.  There were two things I did not realize.  One, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a fuckload of books.  Two, my child would become completely engrossed.

We have been at this for about four months.  We have read eight-and-a-half Little House books, all the way from the Little House in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the First Four Years of Laura’s marriage to Almanzo.  We are a year-and-a-half into those four years, after which we will be finished with the series.  I fear he may ask me to start reading other books about Wilder.

For awhile, he would get the picture book versions of the books on his weekly trips to the school library.  I am pretty sure he is the first kindergarten boy the librarian has ever seen who knows exactly where the Little House section is.  But, he soon tired of those watered-down versions.  He decided the writing was not up to his standards.

Apparently, my kid is a literary snob.

The books bring up some tough questions, and I do not censor Ma’s bigotry.  Instead, I discuss with him that her hatred of “Indians” is prejudice, and we talk about why that is so bad.  When we hit the minstrel show, it got a little more complicated.  Ever try explaining to a five-year-old why blackface is so offensive…?

I don’t mind these conversations.  He is learning history, and a part of that is coming to understand that attitudes are in many ways socially constructed.  He may not grasp all of this, but raising a child with any set of values is an ongoing process.  Frankly, it’s one of my favorite parts of parenting.

Not that the Little House mania has been all positive.  There have been a few unforeseen complications.  When he and his friends get together, they tend to play games themed around their obsessions – one friend loves dinosaurs, another Star Wars.  Lately it has been How to Train Your Dragon.  But, it’s hard to propose to a group of six-year-old boys, “Guys, I have an idea.  Instead of playing dinosaurs, let’s play Little House.  I’ll be Almanzo.  Who wants to play Carrie?”

And then there was the trip to the local living historical farm, which starts with a display of nineteenth-century farming implements.  As we walked in, Zachary walked up to the first display case.  “Oh, look!  A yoke!”  Turning to the next case, he exclaimed, “It’s a plow!  And a pitchfork!”

You don’t even want to know how excited he was to churn butter.

Of course, he was even more excited for Laura and Almanzo to get together.  You see, I had explained during Farmer Boy that the book was about Almanzo, who would grow to be the man Laura marries.  So, for all of The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, the kid would writhe with happy anticipation whenever Almanzo showed up.   Clearly, my child is a romantic.

Zach has gotten some queer notions about the way the world works from these books, however.  It took some time to explain exactly why Laura and her Ma both had to stop teaching once they got married.  And he hasn’t quite grasped that people don’t get married anymore straight out of their parents’ houses.  I had to explain that his teenaged babysitter is going to college, rather than finding a beau.

The books have taught him about engagement rings, a necessary education for all five-year-olds.  “Mommy, why do you have two rings?”

“One is my wedding ring, the other is my engagement ring.”

“Why did you marry Daddy and leave your parents’ house?” he asked, missing about ten years in the middle. “I bet you were glad to get away from your stepmother because she was mean, even though Daddy is sometimes stinky.”

“I didn’t marry Daddy right after I left. I went to college.”

“Did you go to college right after you left your stepmother?”

This was not a conversation I wanted to have in front of the sponge that is his three-year-old brother.  “Honey, can you come into the kitchen and I will be happy to explain it?”

He followed me in, and I bent down to his level.  I think my kids know when I am imparting important information, because I stop washing dishes and actually look at them.  “I didn’t leave when I went to college.  I left when I was about John’s age,” I explained, referring to our ten-year-old neighbor.

“Who did you live with?”

“My grandparents and then my aunt.”

“But you were happy to leave your stepmother,” he repeated.

“That’s true.  I was happy to get away from my stepmother.”

“Because stepmothers are mean.”

“No,” I said.  “My stepmother was mean.  But not all of them are.”

“Why was she mean?” he asked, a question I dreaded only slightly less than the other possibility: how was she mean?

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe she didn’t like you?”

“Well, that’s true.  She didn’t like me.”

Never one to be deterred, he pressed on.  “Why didn’t she like you?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know why a grown-up wouldn’t like a child.  Why do you think?”  At this point, I was hoping to get a sense of what he thought the issues were, so that I was not giving more information than he was actually asking for.  However, he had no idea why a grown-up would dislike a child, and the conversation stopped there.

But I am left with it, this knowledge that the conversations are rapidly creeping up on me.  He is asking more and more, wanting to process my life, to fit it into the world that he knows.  And, unlike the middle child – whose pleas of “tell me about when you were a little girl” can be assuaged with “I liked to climb trees” – this one is old enough to handle parts of the truth.

I just wish I could maintain his innocence a little bit longer.

16 responses to “Everything I need to know I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder

  1. I loved reading about how your son got into the Little House books. We haven’t gotten to Little Town on the Prairie” and I had completely forgotten about the blackface part. Yikes.

  2. We went through a Little House phase too – and made cheese and did a few other things as well! I liked the issues they raised because it was nice to be able to talk about WHY it’s important to be aware and, also to point out the context for a lot of our racial, gender and other issues (in other words, they didn’t spring from nowhere and were not just arbitrarily imposed).

    If he does run out of those maybe give Arthur Ransome a try?

  3. You are so wonderful how you address these things with your kids. Mine grab large weapons and threaten hari-kari.

    I am so fascinated that your boys are able to play in ways that don’t always, without fail, no matter what, where, or how, end up in a mass of bodies on the floor.

    Also, there is another book — Oriole in the springtime or something like this — that is an early reader chapter book. Will has just read it and he read much of it out loud to us at bedtime so I heard a bit of it. It’s like a more politically correct Little House… settler family moving in with kids getting to know Native Americans in the area. Maybe this would be a good one for Zach to talk about?

  4. wow i read those books no fewer than 5 times through as a child but I didn’t remember any of that stuff, goes to show you how much I actually RETAINED huh? Anyway I can only imagine how hard it is to answer those questions, my son turned 5 two weeks ago, and my Uncle passed away this week, the conversations we have had have truly broke my heart (because he had never experienced a loss like this before). Sometimes parenting is so hard!

  5. I dole out small truths when asked. My oldest, she’s asks a lot. I wish I could keep her little forever, but it just doesn’t seem to be working out for me.

    Laughing, because my middle one is like your middle one. Mama, did you like rolly polly’s when your were five, is about the most she wants to know.

  6. Those are tough conversations, Emily. But honesty pays off.

  7. That part? Is so hard. I have fielded a lot of questions from my own 5-year-old about why my parents got divorced and I’m not really sure how to answer them. I don’t know what to say about my father’s drug addiction to her. I don’t know what she’s ready for. And, in my case, I also worry about what she will repeat back to my mother. It is thorny, that’s for sure.

  8. ouch. yes. i don’t know what you say. the truth, i suppose, in the sense that Zachary is probably sensitive enough that he’s already imagined nightmarish things. maybe better to contextualize, explain that the problem was with HER, not you, and that in your lives today you don’t know anyone with those problems and you will protect him from people like that. or something.

    are there any rabid dogs in Little House you could compare her to?

    i sound flip. i don’t mean to be. my heart swells at the vastness of what you survived and what you have to stare down just to even begin that conversation.


  9. We’re reading those books now – we’re only on Farmer Boy, which I have to say is really boring after Big Woods. I don’t think it’s prejudice to hate people who break into your house and force you at knifepoint to hand over your food and tobacco, however. I’d hate them too even if their skin is brown. Or white for that matter.

  10. But, Ma hates all “Indians.” It is prejudice to assume that all people of the same race will act that way.

  11. I just have to say this – I love reading your blog. I know I don’t comment all the time, but I read every entry. You are such a delicious writer – I devour your words like they’re food, I really do. I come here and I read your posts and they play out in my mind like a movie – it’s effortless, the way you do it. This was an amazing post – the way you write about your kids and your family and life and everything is brilliant, and this post was no exception.

  12. Reading this, I realize that, unlike yours, my oldest child never seemed to have any interest in my childhood. Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

  13. planningdoesntwork

    Someday our daughter will ask where her dad’s mom is. If things remain as they are, an answer of “She lives very far away and we can’t visit her” will be both honest and easy for a while. Eventually we’ll have to have a discussion of addiction and mental health issues that will somehow have to avoid causing prejudice against such issues, while also explaining why we have no contact with her.

    And I was also obsessed with LHOTP when I was 6. I read the entire series over and over. My mom made me a dress complete with pinafore and bonnet that I wore to school as regular clothing. I also wore it in my class picture, and decided I couldn’t smile for it because no one smiled in pictures back in the “old days”.

  14. Why any adult would treat a child that way is a question that has no appropriate answer, at any time, ever. It feels to me. And I’m not saying it’s not appropriate to talk to you child about it. I’m saying it’s so F-ed up that an adult would behave that way, that there’s no reasonable explanation.

  15. I have some questions that are hard to answer. And sometimes they get asked. Wish the innocence could last longer, though.

    And I LOVE those books.

  16. Could we live closer? “A” also has a Little House obsession and we’re reading our third right now. It would be nice to have another boy to play Little House with. And I too explain the history rather than edit….mostly. Its a hard history, but books like this give us a good window into understanding what happened and giving it a human face.

    I got chills though when you said that Z couldn’t imagine a grown-up not liking a child. That’s so different than the experience you had as a child. That means you win. Good for you, E.