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I Tried To Parent Like Ma Ingalls From The 'Little House' Books, & This Is What Happened

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Pretty much my entire life has been shaped by the books I read as a child. I’ve met people who have no clue who Anne of Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon are and it shocks me to my core. How do you live not knowing the adorable charm of Anne or the swoon-worthy affections of Gilbert Blythe? How do you become a writer without knowing the agony of the 3 o’clock, dark night? 

Books are and have always been my life, and now that my children are growing older, I decided it was time to introduce them to a book series I still know and love dearly: The Little House  series. For their birthday last year, I got all four of my kids the series, and we’re slowly reading it together at bedtime. We’re currently on book three — Little House on the Prairie — having already finished Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy together. We’re all having a blast, and my husband, though he won’t admit it, is secretly loving it, too.

As we read through, I’ve been struck by how very different parenting was back in the prairie days, even in the middle of nowhere — and I can tell my kids are too. The characters behaved with “lady-like manners” (no thanks), the kids never complained (magic, pure magic!),  marriage consisted of non-stop work, and fiddling was considered fun. Was life better like that?

The Experiment

Sheila Scarborough/Flickr

I decided to see if I could pick up a few parental cues from Ma and Pa Ingalls. With just the open plains and each other to worry about, would a simpler life actually mean a happier one? If we didn’t have gadgets and convenience stores and unlimited Wi-Fi, would we have more time for each other? Would my girls even know what “lady-like manners” were? Would I? And the most important question of all: Would we churn our own butter?

This is what happened when we tried to take parenting cues from the Little House books for a week.

Day 1: I Got Super Excited About A Bed

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We’d just finished the chapter in which Pa builds Ma a magnificent bed with a mattress out of a sack that she then fills with old, dried-out grass. (Grass, you guys. Grass.) As she settles into her new bed/throne, she remarks,

I declare, I’m so comfortable, it’s practically sinful!

I chuckled as I read the passage out loud, and then immediately felt a wave of shame overtake me as I mentally calculated how much money we’d spent on mattresses in our home for a family of six. The waste! Here was Ma, happy on some freaking hay, and some nights I want to punch my husband in the face for getting too close to me in our king-size bed. I was so not like Ma, feeling “sinful” for actually having a tiny taste of comfort in my life.

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I considered sleeping on the floor for a few days, but then I remembered that flu season is upon us and I have four young kids and a husband who’s a middle-school teacher, so I will more than likely be spending a lot of time on the floor sleeping next to sick kids come a few weeks. Because I couldn’t get excited about a heap of hay, I decided to just stop complaining about the silly stuff I usually complain about every day and instead, I used it as an opportunity to reflect on each and every little thing I have to be grateful for in a day. My kids, my work, my coffee pot, my bed, my shower (with running water!), my car, my computer, the list goes on and on.

To be honest, giving thanks for the little thing has turned into a ritual, almost like how I hope I can ward off any sickness simply by thinking positively.

So if you need me, I’ll be busy counting my blessings in my comfortable bed, tipping my hat to Ma for starting #GratitudeNovember before it was even a thing.

Day 2: I Didn’t Waste A Single Scrap of Food

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I am super guilty of meal planning, then saying, “Eh, I don’t really feel like eating that after all,” and making something totally different while fresh groceries rot in my fridge. But thinking of that scene in Little House in The Big Woods when Laura and Mary play with an actual pig’s bladder while Ma scrapes every last piece of meat she can off a wild hog or in the Little House on the Prairie book, when they actually went to bed dreaming of just the thought of butter when Pa brought home a discarded cow, I vowed I’d no longer be such a waster.

Yesterday, I scrounged through my fridge, found a few peppers, a sweet potato, and a random turkey burger about to cross the threshold into garbage, mixed them up with some pureed pumpkin from Halloween and voila, pumpkin chili!

My husband wasn’t exactly thrilled by my frugalness — and in fact, he “accidentally” forgot to take it with him to school the next day when I packed it in his lunch, but I’m still calling it a win Using all the food in my fridge gave me a good hard dose of reality. It made me realize just how much I cater to my children’s whims. For instance, there are certain types of granola bars they won’t eat, certain types of chicken tenders they won’t touch, and certain types of cereal they turn their noses up at, and I’ll be damned if those kids are going to waste money and my precious energy like that. I jump through hoops to please their precious palates when really, once that fridge is bare, they take whatever I’ve got.

Day 3: I Took A Vacation … Five Miles Away

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In Farmer Boy, the childhood memoir about Laura’s future husband Almanzo, the readers are treated to the story of how his parents who are gearing up for the vacation of a lifetime — five miles down the road, to his aunt’s house. So much prep work goes into this epic journey and his parents are gone for like a month because it takes so long to get anywhere and the kids are left to handle everything all on their own.

The point is, I was struck by how “vacationing” used to mean a lot more back then. When our kids all fell sick the night before we were supposed to take a weekend trip family trip away, I used it as an opportunity to stay home and see what kind of fun we could have. Turns out: A LOT.

There was a free day at the community pool, walks in the yard, a trip  to the in-laws (made possible by our modern marvel, the car!), and a neighborhood “treat” walk that cost us absolutely nothing. The Ingalls may have been the first “staycationers,” but we proudly followed in their footsteps. Surprisingly, I actually thoroughly enjoyed staying home, saving money, and exploring our own backyard instead of schlepping kids across the state for a “fun” family adventure that, let’s face it, is never actually fun.

Day 4: I Swooned Over Red Meat

In this night’s chapter, Pa brings some exciting news back to the prairie: the cowboys are in town and they need Pa’s help! In exchange for a little cow wrangling from Pa to get them safely across the plains, the cowboys throw in a piece of the cow pie to sweeten the deal —  a whole steer for the Ingalls family to chow down on.

When Pa delivers the good news, Ma’s eyes, the book describes, “shone bright” as she gazed him and lovingly and said, “Oh, Charles.”

She was speechless with delight and probably already drooling over the thought of frying up some delicious meat over that prairie fire. But the entire passage made me extremely uncomfortable, because I happen to be married to a man who grew up on a beef and dairy farm and subsequently expects red meat in some form at every meal — a trait he so lovingly passed on to our four children. Even my 1 year old, I kid you sadly not, ate six pieces of sausage last weekend for breakfast. SIX. I was appalled by the fact we let her eat so much processed red meat, but I also just really wanted her to eat something, so I was oddly OK with it.

This section in the book shook me out of my red-meat reverie, and I realized that we needed to tone it down a bit. If Ma Ingalls could swoon over just the thought of red meat, clearly it was a more precious commodity than we were treating it in our home. Plus, red meat probably causes cancer, which is not something any parent wants.

So I decided to plan a lot more veggie-heavy meals and swapped anything red for turkey to ease my family into it. Meatballs, breakfast sausage, chili — they all got a healthier turkey substitute. And guess what? By the end of the week, my kids and my husband were back to swooning over their beloved red meat. Guess we’re a lot more like Ma Ingalls than I thought.

Day 5: I Tried To Convince My Children To Shut The Hell Up

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If there’s one common theme in the Little House series, it is this: Children should be seen, and not heard. And if there’s one common theme in the My House series, it is this: Children are everywhere and I can’t ever hear my husband or my own thoughts over them.

To be honest, the noise level in our home is getting out of control. My kids are like little tyrants, demanding things constantly, interrupting me and my husband whenever we are talking to each other, and screaming and whining instead of talking in anything resembling an inside voice whenever they want something.

Getting my guys to be more like Laura and co. wasn’t a change that would happen overnight, but I did try to take some clue from Ma and Pa! I didn’t lock my kids up and tell them to never speak unless spoken to, but I realized that it’s OK to be the adults in our own home, letting our kids know it’s never OK to interrupt, talk over someone, or yell and scream if they wanted something. My 5 and 7 year old can wait politely until I’m done talking before screaming to interrupt me. I’ve been consistent on this one so far, and it’s working! They’re all slowly learning that we mean business, and I’ve got to thank the Ingalls for that!

Next up? Not letting the kids control the TV every. single. night. Ma would be proud.

Day 6: I Demanded Absolute Obedience — And Failed Miserably

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There’s a scene in Little House On The Prairie when Pa leaves for some reason, probably to hunt down a wild rabbit for dinner or something, and ties up the family dog, Jack.

“Whatever happens, don’t untie Jack, you got it?” he says to his daughters Mary and Laura, who really aren’t old enough to be left outside alone but he leaves them nonetheless. They nod solemnly and then a few minutes (or hours because it’s the prairie and there’s nothing else to do but stand around outside) later, they’re horrified when some naked Indians wander into the house where Ma and the baby are rustling something up for dinner.

Much hand-wringing and cold sweat ensues. Laura is keen to untie Jack and let him tear the Indians to shreds, but Mary is adamant that they heed Pa’s orders. Laura points out that Pa probably didn’t expect a pair of naked Indians to walk into the house when he issued that order, and I completely agree with her. As I’m reading, I do my best to mentally cheer Laura on, momentarily forgetting this is a book and it’s not real and there’s nothing I can actually do to change what comes next.

The family breathes a big sigh of relief and regale Pa with their tale of terror later, even though the Indians have taken the food and his tobacco. Things get pretty somber, however, when Pa turns to them in a “terrible” voice and asks them if they thought about letting Jack go. The girls tremble in fear because Pa can somehow sense that they even thought about disobeying him, and I start to feel a little ashamed myself. Then, Pa asks them if they know what would have happened if they had let Jack go and it hits me: the dog would’ve attacked the Indians and the Indians would have hated them all and either killed them on the spot … or worse.

I am aghast at myself for cheering Laura on, and also amazed by the wisdom of Pa. How did he know? Is there some book he learned to be so wise from? Why can’t I be all all-knowing as a parent like he is? How do I command that much respect from my children? I can not even get my kids to put on matching socks in the morning!

For about 20 minutes, I conjure up Pa and demand total and complete obedience from my children, until my oldest challenges me on a question I do not know the answer to. (Turns out “Why shouldn’t I be able to ask for 13 presents if Santa just makes them all?” is not an easy question to skirt, you guys.) I was  bitterly reminded that unlike Pa, I am not all-knowing and wise, and I guess I will just keep muddling along and learning with my children. Damn it.

Day 7: I Practiced Relaxed Hygiene Standards For The Whole Family

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Some of the things I constantly think about while reading this beloveds series are all my personal burning, pressing questions, like ...

  • How did Ma stand Pa’s stench?
  • Did they do anything for deodorant back then?I mean, I stink after one workout and the man was constantly working his ass off!  
  • Where did they have sex if they all shared one tiny room? What about when they were journeying across the plains in their covered wagon? Did they just not do it for a while?
  • Ma was obviously didn’t shave. (Or did she?) Did that bother Pa? Was Pa actually a feminist? Why can’t I just be hairy and happy?
  • How did they handle periods in the middle of nowhere? Why doesn’t Laura talk about that?
  • How bad did they all stink back then? How did Ma manage to only have three kids on the plains? I already have four, what’s her secret?!
  • Did Ma get totally naked when they had The Sex or did she just lift up her petticoats because it would have been too cold/too much work otherwise? How did she clean up after sex? Were they just cool with semen all over?

Don’t pretend you haven’t wondered, too.

I considered all of valid questions and decided that our modern-day standards are just much too strict. Not only would my husband and I probably still want to have sex with each other, even in the most stinky, hairy, and disgusting of situations, but our kids could probably stand to bathe a lot less. So I made a mental note to take a break on constant showers and bath times. They’re kids! They’ll stink! It’s OK, right?

Then I smelled my daughter’s armpits and almost passed out. Sorry Ma, times have changed. Bathtime for all. And just to be clear — that’s separate bath water for everyone.

Did I Like Living On The Prairie For A Week?

My Little House hygiene routine may have been shot, but I’ll tell you what: I still appreciate my bed every time I climb into it and feel sinfully comfortable. And as for the rest of my Little House parenting lessons, I have to say that I really will be taking them to heart, especially the food thing. We spend so much money on “snack” food and food that this kid will eat, but the other so be sure to pick up extra of that other brand, and it’s gotten to be completely out of control, and frankly, ruining our finances too.

It’s back to the basics for us, just like the Ingalls. We’re going more natural in our food choices (organic milk ftw), showing more gratitude, sticking close to home for family fun, respecting our elders, and while I may be letting the whole sharing-each-other’s-bathwater thing slide, I am also have convinced my husband about 87 percent of the way to a “yes” on my plan to get some chickens for our yard for fresh eggs every morning.

Just call me Ma Ingalls.

Images: cmbrusie/Instagram, Sheila Scarborough/Flickr; Giphy (8)