I have a confession to make: I was born in the 1970s. When I was growing up, the Little House On The Prairie TV series was in its first run. It was still on the air the Christmas I turned five, when I received my very own 9-volume boxed set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic children’s series, based on her memories of a childhood shaped by westward migration in the late 19th century United States.
I learned how to read on those books, at my father’s side. Most nights my father came home from work long after my bedtime. But on Saturdays, I would sit in his lap and he would read a chapter to me. Over time, it switched to me reading a page, then him, then me again. Eventually, I was doing all the reading, with his help.
So when Kimmie’s fifth birthday approached, I bought the girls their very own Little House boxed set. And eagerly looked forward to revisiting these beloved books from my childhood.
Never thinking for a moment that there could be anything problematic about this action, or this choice.
So what? (a.k.a. What’s wrong with this picture?)
As someone who was already of “advanced maternal age” with her first pregnancy, I realize that most of my readers with young kids were born in the 1980s, or even the ’90s. So you may have missed these classics during your formative years.
My girls were already reading by the time we started working through the Little House books together in 2018. We’re lucky if we get to read a chapter 1-2 nights a week, which means that we’re working through the set very s-l-o-w-l-y. (We only read a chapter on nights when it’s my turn for bedtime duty, and they’re both ready for bed with time to spare.)
At first, we took turns reading pages, or I had the girls take turns while I listened. They’re perfectly fluent readers, but they do enough reading on their own that it’s become something we do together with Mama being the only one reading.
And yet, I had no idea what I was getting into when we first started on this historic series. Written long ago about an even longer-ago time.
That’s why I’m writing this post. To warn you about what you should expect before revisiting childhood favorites with your children.
Especially if those childhood favorites have anything to do with the often-messy history of the United States.
What parents need to know before reading Little House with their kids:
I honestly don’t remember having a single discussion with my father about the books as we were reading them. At the time, the events they described had taken place a century before, but the books themselves were only maybe four decades old.
Nowadays, the books themselves are twice as old. A lot has changed in 40 years.
For example, did you catch the 2018 controversy about the renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder award in children’s literature?
The award is given out annually by the American Library Association, to acknowledge outstanding contributions in children’s literature. Laura herself was the first recipient, in 1954.
But – bear with me for a moment – the 2018 rebranding of the honor into the Children’s Literature Legacy Award reflects a 21st-century sensibility of cultural awareness. Including the cumulative impact of microaggressions over time upon those who find themselves at a disadvantage within prevailing or historic power structures.
To put it more simply, there’s a lot of stuff in the Little House books that doesn’t reflect the way we live nowadays. Or, more importantly, the lessons my husband and I want to teach our children about interacting with those who are different than us.
Not to mention that there’s a lot of other potentially problematic stuff in these books – things that kids should have a grownup’s help with processing.
Other potential pitfalls of reading the Little House series
Our first lesson on this came early, in Chapter 3 of the first book, Little House In The Big Woods. Chapter 3, “The Long Rifle,” goes into exhaustive detail about the girls helping Pa make more bullets for his gun every evening, so he can go hunting the next day.
My late father was a card-carrying member of the NRA, and my family grew up eating whatever he’d caught in our backyard, as often as he could catch it. My girls know this. They also know that my brother Evan and his wife still hunt whenever they have the chance.
But what made this chapter challenging to read with them was the fact that we read it a week after the Parkland school shooting. When, despite our attempts to shield them from the more graphic accounts, the girls had been hearing about gun violence against children for a week straight on the news.
THAT took some explaining. But the resulting conversation I had with them, about this very different time and this very different historical context, was where the idea for this post began.
So should parents read Little House on the Prairie books with their kids?
In a word, YES. Don’t let your children read them on their own. They need an adult with them while they read, to help with critical thinking and historical context.
Think back to when your kids were toddlers and preschoolers, and you did “active reading” activities with them. Where rather than just read them a book, you stopped to ask questions. (Even if they couldn’t answer.) Questions like
- Where is the cat? Can you point to the dog?
- What color is this shape? How many green apples are there?
- What do you think is going to happen next?
This same skill set is what you need to read Little House books with your school-age kids, to help them process what’s going on.
And once you approach reading these books with your children from an engaged, critical perspective, you’ll find that there are so many “teachable moments” (as those of us with education backgrounds like to call them) that you can really unpack with your kiddos.
And best of all, these conversations will not only build their knowledge AND their critical thinking/reading skills, they’ll strengthen the bond between you at the same time.
Easy teachable moments:
The extensive bullet-making example was actually one of the easier “teachable moments” in the books. The timing of when we got to it was most of what made that particular chapter something to discuss at length.
But there are so many other ways in which these books can teach our children gratitude, for so many aspects of modern life that they take for granted. And in the process, we can talk about social differences, unequal distribution of resources, and how very blessed they’ve been in their young lives.
Take Laura’s description of mealtimes. It was not uncommon for their everyday noon dinner, or evening supper, to consist of only one or two courses (one of those courses usually being some sort of bread). Having something to eat with one’s bread was a real treat, such as when Laura helped her mother harvest and process pumpkins in Little House In The Big Woods:
Did you catch that? The pumpkin was a special addition to a meal that would have otherwise been bread (and that’s it!), far as we can tell. There are a lot of meals like this in Laura’s childhood. Moreover, this meager diet stands in stark contrast to the much fuller tables that appeared at the childhood home of her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, in her book Farmer Boy.
At first, I made sure to point out the Ingalls family’s meager fare to the girls each time we encountered it. My kids aren’t prone to being picky or sparing eaters, but we had several useful discussions about how fortunate we are to be able to eat the rich variety of foods we can access. And comparing Laura’s upbringing to Almanzo’s gave us an opportunity to consider social and economic inequalities and differences. Not to mention how hard it was for Pa (Laura’s father) to support his family, given the extraordinarily bad luck that seemed to follow him on most of his ventures.
The same is true for Christmases and birthdays. It’s one thing for me to tell the girls that their great-grandfather grew up in an orphanage, where a good Christmas was an orange on his bedside table (most Christmases, he got nothing). It’s another thing for them to compare their own (modest by today’s standards) Christmas hauls with what counted for “a good Christmas” in Laura’s childhood.
But there are so many other things the girls are learning from these books, because we are taking the time to talk about each issue as it arises.
Some of the more blatant ones are the examples of racial differences. Especially treatment of (and attitudes toward) native peoples in Little House On The Prairie.
Those who make it to the end of Little House on the Prairie know that Pa built his family a house in what’s now southeastern Kansas, on land that the U.S. Government had opened to homesteading.
Only one problem: the land was still actively occupied by the native peoples. And by the end of the book, the government decided it had made a mistake, and the land on which the Ingalls family lived was actually part of the Osage reservation.
Meaning the family had to pack up and leave their newly-built home, and just-planted fields, behind.
Which seems terribly unfair. Until one recalls that the Osage Nation had been there first, and the Ingalls family had been living on their land all along.
If you’ve ever watched two toddlers fighting over a toy, you know that even at this young age, kids have an innate sense of right and wrong, and especially of “fair” and “not fair.”
Passages like this are practically begging for a little “stop and put yourself in their shoes for a moment” conversation.
And when you consider that the Ingalls family were actually the ones invading other people’s space, it makes offhand assertions like “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” easier to unpack on a much deeper level with your littles.
As someone who takes her kiddos to Sunday School most weeks, it’s one thing for me to note with them that this kind of language doesn’t sound very Christian or love-thy-neighbor. (Instead, it sounds downright dehumanizing.)
But in the larger context of the power dynamics going on – where the white settlers were actually interlopers on someone else’s land – assertions about the inherent “goodness” (or lack thereof) of people who look different from you strike me as the sort of thing a bully would say.
Of course, though, the superior attitudes of the white settlers in the book toward non-white peoples aren’t the only instance of bullying. There’s the more blatant examples from Laura’s nemesis, Nellie Oleson, in On The Banks Of Plum Creek. Not only is Nellie portrayed as a spoiled brat, but she’s downright cruel in her interactions with the Ingalls girls – whether yanking Laura’s hair, or putting them down verbally.
And for those of you who grew up on Harry Potter instead of Little House: remember all of Harry Potter’s epic ongoing struggle between the good and the evil inside himself? Laura has plenty of similar impulses from the dark side within her, though her inner angels generally prevail.
Privilege and Opportunity
And as Laura grows up in the books, my girls have closely tracked how old she and her sisters are in each book, compared to my girls’ own ages. Right now, we’re up to book six (The Long Winter), where Laura is a few years older than Kimmie is right now.
And in this book, Laura is so excited because she’s not working 12-plus-hour days anymore (as she did for much of Book 5), helping her family feed railroad employees and westward settlers in their boardinghouse. Which means that she finally has the opportunity to attend school again.
Although this opportunity is a mixed blessing. Because she knows she needs to learn as much as she can ASAP, so she herself can become a teacher. (Her parents’ idea, not hers.) Because once she lands a teaching job, she can help earn money so her blind sister can go to a special college for the blind.
In real life, Laura started teaching school at age 15 for this very reason. Needless to say, all of this blows my girls’ minds.
My girls adore school, and soak up every bit of learning they can. Helping with chores around the house is not their idea of a fun way to spend all day, every day.
Yet whenever Laura and her sisters need to help with the cleaning, or the dishes, or helping their parents earn a living, they do so – quickly and cheerfully (even if not cheerful on the inside). Without complaining.
Gratitude and Empathy
For my relatively privileged offspring, being reminded of all the many ways they are blessed, by reading a story with their mama, is invaluable. And having them try to put themselves in the shoes of these historical characters? It’s a perfect example of how reading these books together with your kids can help them learn empathy, along with slivers of history.
Yes, your school-age kiddos and tweens may now know their colors and shapes – the sorts of things you used to ask them about when reading to them before they could read for themselves. But taking the time to read these stories together with them, and to ask them hard questions about the content whenever they arise, will help their brains in so many other ways. Storytelling is a natural way for children to learn. Pausing stories to ask questions not only keeps kids engaged, it also