On raising Little Women (or men): What we can learn from Marmee

what we can learn from Marmee Jamie Martin, editor of Simple Homeschool, also blogs about motherhood at Steady Mom

“Once upon a time, there were four girls, who had enough to eat and drink and wear, a good many comforts and pleasures, kind friends and parents, who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented.” – From a story Marmee told her daughters about some “girls” she once knew

Last autumn I decided to return for the first time in two decades to a book I once loved: Little Women. I have fond memories of Meg, Beth, Amy, and the sister I identified most with, Jo.

book buttonAs a teen the hopes and ambitions of these young women captured my imagination. How would life turn out for them? Would they find the men of their dreams? Would Laurie end up with Jo? I had my eye on a certain boy at the time myself (he’s now my husband ;)) and the girls’ romantic notions fit my own.

Reading the novel as a 36-year-old, however, was a new experience. This time my focus turned toward the awe-inspiring mother, Marmee. After all, I’m in the midst of raising my brood just as she did.

Her four daughters had vastly different opinions in almost every area of life, but they agreed on one thing–their love and near adoration for their mother:

“Glad to find you so merry, my girls,” said a cheery voice at the door, and actors and audience turned to welcome a tall, motherly lady, with a “can-I-help-you” look about her which was truly delightful.”

I aspire to this same level of love and friendship, admiration and respect with my children as they mature. How did Marmee manage to keep her children’s hearts during their adolescence, and how can we adapt her strategies to our 21st century lives?

Here are my takeaways:

1. Nurture by nature.

“Beth was too bashful to go to school; it had been tried, but she suffered so much that it was given up, and she did her lessons at home, with her father.”

littlewomen2Marmee treated each of her girls as individuals. She let them develop according to their own gifts and inclinations–instead of trying to fit them into a box of “proper” societal expectations.

Painfully shy Beth was allowed to homeschool because she couldn’t bear to be around so many others. Socialite Amy, on the other hand, adored and enjoyed school until a misunderstanding led to her learning at home as well.

It wasn’t that Marmee didn’t have high hopes for her children–she did. But her goals for them centered mainly on character development.

She knew her daughters could reach those goals and retain their originality at the same time. There wasn’t the fretting over who they weren’t as much as there was the celebrating of who they were.

Can we do the same?

2. Allow the gift of childhood.

“Yes, Jo, your little friend is very welcome, and I hope Meg will remember that children should be children as long as they can.”

joThe March sisters spent hours creating and performing plays, writing and reading aloud their own family newspaper, and spending time outside.

Even as teenagers Marmee encouraged their play. There was no shuffling them out to lessons multiple times a week, no hyperscheduling involved.

How can we translate this into our modern lives? We apply it to the boundaries we develop–around screen time, extracurriculars, and our general pace as a family.

Modern life may rush at a certain speed, but we direct the tempo within our home–fast or slow. By embracing a steady rhythm, we provide our kids time for relationships within our walls to deepen and time for imagination to take root.

3. Model the qualities we hope to cultivate.

“I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

Marmee refrained from too much lecturing. She chose her words and her timing well, and she modeled how she wanted her girls to live. Though their own family struggled financially, Marmee served her community and provided opportunities for her daughters to do the same.

She shared her flaws–confiding in impetuous Jo about her own flares of temper that she’d learned to control through discipline, help from her husband, and prayer.

To encourage their love for and study of Scripture, Marmee inspired her girls with the gift of a beautiful Bible on their pillows Christmas morning. Love, not fear, made her daughters want to follow in their mother’s footsteps.

littlewomen Winona Ryder as Jo–accepting Professor Bhaer’s proposal

The March household centered around the relationships within it, tight-knit bonds woven by a woman constantly checking the pulse of the atmosphere within her home. She began this culture when they were little, and her girls enjoyed it enough to keep it as they got older.

Marmee reaped exactly what she sowed, and so will we.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: Are we planting and nurturing the seeds that will lead to the harvest we hope for?

“Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility, – ‘O, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!'”

Which March sister do you most identify with: Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy?

Originally published on January 21, 2013.

About Jamie Martin

Jamie is a mama to three cute kids born on three different continents. She serves as editor of Simple Homeschool, and blogs about mindful parenting at Steady Mom. Jamie is also the author of two books: Steady Days and Mindset for Moms.


  1. This is lovely! As a big fan of Little Women, I just had to tell you how I appreciate it!

  2. This is so nicely written. I was struck, too, when I came back to the story as an adult by how my opinion of Jo’s choice in husband changed. As a teenager I was shocked at her refusal of Laurie and her acceptance of that boring German professor. Laurie was so perfect! But as an adult revisiting the story, I saw more and understood more. I saw how Laurie wasn’t a good match for Jo in the way he was for Amy. Ah, maturity and insight.

  3. Love this. I relate quite a bit to Jo. I am now also enjoying “Little Men” on netflix which is a continuation of “Little Women”

  4. Wow, what great insights! I love the idea of our children as seeds. Little Women is my favorite book and now I am excited to read it from a mother’s perspective. Thank you!

  5. “Marmee”, a biography of Abba Alcott by Sanford Salyer is a lovely read as well.

  6. I loved Little Women when I was growing up, and always felt a little like Amy when I was younger. I really love the thoughts behind this, great post!

  7. I identified with Jo the most, but also Beth in many ways. I was still distraught when I read it recently and she turned Laurie down. He may not have been right for Jo, but I did not feel he was the right person for Amy or she was for him! I loved the adult wisdom hidden in the book that I totally missed as a child. It is worth a re-read as an adult!

  8. I just re-read this too and what a change from 14 to 34! Wasn’t Marmee wise? I wanted to fold over every other page to remember what to say for certain situations! She inspires me!

  9. Jamie, this post was so meaningful to me and I wanted to take a moment to thank you for the thoughtful message that you shared. I was really struggling with my frustration and fatigue. My husband and I adopted our little ones this past year 9, 4, 4, and 6 months. My twins are both special needs and require great focus and patience, of which I was running in very short supply. I picked up Little Women the night of your post and began to read. (It is a very old copy from early 1900’s that I have never even opened) What a joy it was just to open the cover and smell the history of those pages. I very unexpectedly found peace in the words of Marmee and the young ladies. I was seeing real similarities between the joy of learning that Jo, Amy , Beth and Meg had to that of my own kiddos. I was also comforted by the challenges that each girl had to overcome, and with the support of the entire family they were able to carry on with confidence in knowing that they had an entire group of loving supporters to lift them up when they stumbled. Their flaws were ok to have and to share. That was my lesson learned. Thank you again for being a constant inspiration during my journey. -Andi

  10. I have never finished reading this book, but it’s definitely one that I should finish reading as an adult. I think I may enjoy it far more than I did when I tried to read it as a teenager.

  11. Lovely article! We can indeed learn a lot from Marmee. I read the book as a child and have re-read it many times since.
    I identified most with Beth, as I loved my home, and my dolls, and wasn’t too fond of large groups of people. LOL
    By the sounds of it, I may be the only girl who ever read those books,and thought that Jo was right to refuse Laurie! I hated that so many people (with the exception of the wise Marmee) put pressure on her to make a choice she knew was wrong not just for her, but for Laurie as well. Mr. Bhaer was a much better match for her. :)

  12. lee ann daugherty, B&N bookseller says:

    I was just going to post a “favorite literary mom” bit on FB and searched to see if there was anything on Marmee other than the actresses cast to play her ( I don’t think anyone has done her justice) when I came across this. Little Women is my favorite and most re-read book although I haven’t read it in years. I struggled with temper just as Jo did and always enjoyed writing…I even have a custom made Tshirt that says “genius burns,” a reference to Jo’s furious bouts of writing up in the garrett. Like everyone, my heart was broken for Laurie when Jo turned him down, but I knew she was right. And I loved Professor Baer and think the “under the umbrella” proposal one of the most sweetly romantic in all of literature. Thanks for all the good memories this piece evoked.

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