Why reading Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ can help you be a better parent

Anna Nordberg

THE WASHINGTON POST – As I was watching director Greta Gerwig’s glorious adaptation of Little Women, which is nominated for six Oscars, I kept thinking, was that part in the book? Was that part in the book? The story of the March sisters and their mother, Marmee, was familiar to me, but the film felt like a revelation.

As it turns out, yes, it’s all in the book. Gerwig has not updated the novel, she’s simply illuminated it. I’d also argue, after returning to the novel for the first time in 25 years, that it is the clearest, bravest and most nuanced literary road map I’ve seen on how to be a healthy family.

We need that. There’s so much worry in modern parenting that it’s absurdly comforting to realise most of the problems we face aren’t new; Marmee, the fictional matriarch, faced them back in the 1800s. (The novel is set during the Civil War but was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s adolescence in Concord, Massachusetts, during the 1840s.)

Here’s what all parents can take away from Alcott’s extraordinary portrayal of family.

THIS IS A FAMILY THAT KNOWS HOW TO HAVE FUN

Put simply, the March family delights in one another. They are poor, so fancy travel and parties have nothing to do with it (the novel opens with the girls talking about how there will be no Christmas presents that year); rather it is their way of being a family, the tiny rituals and routines and traditions that underlie that happiness, that is so deeply appealing.

They sing together at the piano. They put on plays, making their own scenery and costumes. Instead of horseback riding, they throw a saddle over a low tree branch and ride it on warm days.

Every evening, they sit together as a family. They laugh a lot and rejoice in one another’s successes.

Of all the advice I’ve been given as a parent, the most helpful was to take the time to delight in my kids.

The other work of parenting – teaching right from wrong, sharing a system of values, giving children the skills to become independent – flows from that foundation.

And nothing builds that faster than delight, silliness and love. We could all take a page from the Marches on that.

MARMEE MEETS EACH OF HER GIRLS WHERE THEY ARE

What makes Marmee not just loving but exceptionally effective as a parent is that she sees each daughter as an individual.

Parenting four daughters is not for the faint of heart (their father is away serving as a chaplain in the Union Army for a large chunk of the novel), and you could forgive Marmee for just trying to get through the day.

Instead, she supports each child through their challenges – Jo with her topsy-turvy emotions, Amy with her vanities and Beth with her shyness. And she helps carve out a productive role for Beth at home rather than forcing her into the world.

When Meg, the oldest at 16, goes on a trip to a wealthy friend’s family home, she overhears gossip about how her mother must be angling for a good match for her, and Marmee’s response, when a devastated Meg asks her if it’s true, is a marvel.

“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world – marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting,” Marmee said. “I’d rather see you [unmarried] or poor men’s wives, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

While the focus on marriage speaks to a time when women had almost no career opportunities, the core idea of this speech – that a life driven by perceived status rather than purpose and love will not be a happy one – holds.

It is the message Meg, who Marmee knows has a good heart but also envies her wealthier friends, in particular needs to hear.

What’s perhaps most admirable about Marmee is that she never signals that she prefers one girl’s temperament over another.

Even parents with the best of intentions can fall into this trap, but Marmee helps each girl grow into who they are, never trying to mold them into someone else.

WE NEED TO GIVE OUR CHILDREN SPACE TO FAIL

In the chapter ‘Experiments’, the girls decide for one summer week to abandon all of their work and responsibilities and just laze about. Marmee allows her daughters to try this, though she warns, “I think you will find . . . that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.” Then she steps back and lets the slow-rolling disaster unfold.

The house is in shambles, the days feel bewilderingly long to the girls and everyone is out of sorts – “it was astonishing what a peculiar and uncomfortable state of things was produced by the ‘resting and revelling’ process.”

On the final day of the experiment, Marmee stays in her room and lets the girls fend for themselves, and thus follows a series of mishaps that culminates with Jo making a pudding with salt instead of sugar.

The “experiment” is such a comical failure that all four daughters return to their duties with energy and relief, having learned a lesson. And that’s because Marmee gave them the space to fail, knowing that’s sometimes the best way to learn.

MARMEE IS THE MODELER IN CHIEF

When I read Little Women in high school, Marmee’s amazing mothering skills felt as fixed as some laws of the universe, as if goodness and sense just came naturally to her. Until Gerwig’s adaptation, that’s pretty much how she was portrayed on the screen, too.

What’s so surprising upon rereading the novel now is that Marmee had to work to overcome her shortcomings, and that experience is key to her parenting success.

She can help her girls with empathy and lack of judgment because she understands their struggles.

After Amy falls through river ice because Jo, who was angry at her, wasn’t watching her, Jo seeks out her mother.

“It’s my dreadful temper!” she wailed. “I try to cure it, I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever! Oh mother, what shall I do?”

Marmee counselled her to remember this day, then said, “Jo, dear, we all have our temptations . . . and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world; but mine used to be just like it.” Jo cannot believe it; she has never seen her mother angry.

“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it,” Marmee said. “I am angry nearly every day of my life, but I have learned not to show it; and I hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

The gift Marmee gives Jo is not some speech about how to transform herself into a different person who doesn’t feel anger. Instead, it’s a road map on how to get to a place where anger doesn’t control her.

Gerwig puts this scene in the film, and it’s that line – “I am angry nearly every day of my life”- more than any other that sent me scrambling back to the book. The anger in parenting is real – whether it’s 7.48am and no one has their shoes on, or you’re trying to comfort your child and get kicked in the eye, or you learn someone is bullying your kid. There’s anger every day.

What Marmee offers Jo in her moment of struggle is the validation of shared experience. And reading this book more than 150 years after it was published, I feel the same way.