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.

Comments

  1. Tracey says:

    I think I’ve always identified the most closely with Meg – maybe because I’m also the oldest of four children! Enjoyed the lessons you shared in this post!!
    Tracey’s latest post: More About Him, Less About Me

  2. Bonni says:

    I have never read the book :( but my 3 daughters LOVE it, and I love this post! Great examples and tips to incorporate into my life as a mom!
    Bonni’s latest post: Valentines Day and more!

  3. Lori says:

    I’ll admit, I’ve never read it! It’s on my list now. I am in my 3rd reading (in a row…don’t want to miss a single detail) of “Leadership Education” by Oliver and Rachel DeMille. I now understand how important it is to go back and read the classics I missed, and to continue my own education, for my own sake and for the education of my children. I think I’m going to love “Little Women”.

  4. Kali says:

    Loved this post!! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Susan says:

    What wonderful quotes from the book. I especially liked that anger one. I’ve always enjoyed the movie, but now I think it’s time I read the book!
    Susan’s latest post: snow days

  6. Melanie says:

    What a perfect timing – I started re-reading “Betty und ihre Schwestern” as it is called in german three days ago .It was my absolute favourite when I was , I think, fourteen.
    After your beautiful post I hardly can’t wait for the evening to come to make a cup of tea and enjoy the story once more from a different perpective. Thank you!

  7. miss says:

    i used to swear that i was a “jo” in my youth but in reality i have come to accept i am a “meg.” i love being at home and taking care of my girls. i spend much of my time reading and brainstorming on how all of us in our home can create habits of growth spiritually, physically and mentally. i think this post is genius!
    miss’s latest post: thinking and homeschool curriculum

  8. Susan says:

    Little Women was my absolute favorite book in the 8th grade. I remember checking that “huge” book out the library often! I named my eldest daughter Josephine (my own Jo!) after Jo March. It is a name I have always loved because I loved the qualities in that character. I have not read that book in soooo long. I think I may pick it up again after all these year…….nice post! :)

  9. Ashlee says:

    My favorite book of all time! I have yet to read it as a mother though (my oldest is 3.5) Now I’ll have to! :-) thanks for the post.
    Ashlee’s latest post: Rotating Toys

  10. erin says:

    In high school i tried out for the part of jo but a loving director pulled me aside before the cast list was posted and told me that i was going to be marmee and that although many fail to reckognize it she is the true heart of the story. At first i thought she was just trying to make me feel better but the deeper i got into the story the more i knew she was right. This ended up being my favorite role and show and the one that has always stuck with me.
    Thank you for this post

  11. Candace says:

    What a lovely little article thanks for sharing:)
    Candace’s latest post: Spring is ‘snake’ season

  12. SoCalLynn says:

    My grandmother sent me a copy of Little Women when I was in second grade. I think I’ve read it a dozen times. I love your perspective and now I think it’s time to read it again!

  13. Beth Gillespie says:

    I just read this book in the week between Christmas and New Year! I love that I am a Jo – fierce, stubborn, fun and full of dreams and stories – I cried as I read Marmee’s advice and guidance to Jo, feeling as if she were talking to me. What a great book! I have Good Wives to dig into next :)

  14. Nicole says:

    This was my favorite book growing up. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve read it. Twenty? Thirty? Somewhere in that range, and I’ve seen the 90s version of the movie as many times. I don’t have daughters, only sons, but my older son has read the book because we had it sitting around the house.
    I think I most closely identified with Meg. But I most wanted to be like Jo.
    Nicole’s latest post: Blah, blah. Filler, filler

    • SoCalLynn says:

      Oh, we love that movie at our house! My daughters and I watch it every year during Christmas time. Even though it isn’t *really* a Christmas movie, it just makes our holiday more special.

  15. I definitely identified with impetuous, tomboy, bookworm Jo…..with a side of shy, musical Beth. As an adult, I have a tendency to read Gone with the Wind every couple of years……but always have to follow it with a “Little Women” chaser. And once I read LW, I have to read “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys” too! I think if I re-read it right now, I’d identify very much with Meg’s trials as a new wife: cooking, cleaning, raising children, being a wife, being hospitable, and budgeting.
    Melissa Jones’s latest post: MommyBee Designs

  16. Stacie says:

    I was a HUGE L.M. Alcott fan growing up. I devoured her books. I always identified with Jo. I always thought I “should” identify with Meg as I was the oldest of 4 children myself. Now I have my own 3 little girls (would love a 4th). I hadn’t thought to reread it since I’ve had my girls but I think I must. It will be interesting to read it from Marmee’s perspective.
    Stacie’s latest post: Just a typical evening

  17. Melissa says:

    This was one of the books I read out loud with my mother. I always identified with Jo and still do as an adult. I can’t wait until my daughter and my son are old enough to sit and read this out loud with me.

  18. sarah says:

    I really love this post. Beautiful.
    sarah’s latest post: January “Twitterature”

  19. I loved Beth the most, but I was most like Jo….and I am still mad she didn’t marry Laurie! = )
    Anyhow, I was amazed when reading it as an adult how different it was. I did relate to Marmee more and the marriage advice was incredible.
    Martha Artyomenko’s latest post: Menu for the week

  20. Katie says:

    I just re-read LW for the first time in years this past autumn, too, and experienced the exact same thoughts about Marmee. Marmee is definitely my literary mother-heroine. I would love to mother my girls in the same way she mothered hers…and I hope and pray my girls will love me as hers love her.

  21. Phronsie says:

    I have always identified most with Beth. And I cry like a baby every time I watch the movie or read the book. It’s one of my favorites.

  22. I identified most with Jo growing up, and probably still do now. I’ll be checking this book out on our trip to the library tomorrow. I burst into tears reading #2. It was something that I always longed for as a child and then teenager. I’m learning to play now through my kids!
    The Happy Homeschooling Hoosier Housewife’s latest post: Help! Send a Saint Bernard!!!

  23. Love Little Women, but it has been years! I should put it up for a reread. I do love rereading classics because, like you, I glean such an entire different experience reading them as an adult, a mom, and a homeschooler! Thanks for these lessons. So good!
    Johanna @ My Home Tableau’s latest post: My very simple morning routine

  24. Lynnette says:

    Jaime, Louisa May Alcott is a treasure trove of wonderful wisdom. The old-fashioned girl, eight cousins, rose in bloom are also wonderful reads. I read all three last year and love them!
    Lynnette’s latest post: tend : care for or look after

  25. Amanda says:

    I must confess: I tried reading this book as an adult and couldn’t get more than a few chapters in. I think it was something that I needed to read as a kid and I have long since missed my window. I found the tone of the book to be sanctimonious and overbearing. I couldn’t draw any kind of inspiration from Marmee because I found her to be far too cloyingly perfect. I *want* to like the book–everyone does!–but I just can’t.

  26. Nicole H. says:

    Try reading “March” by Geraldine Brooks next. It’s novel from Mr. March’s perspective and is an excellent counterpoint to the original “Little Women”

  27. One of the best books written. :) I haven’t re-read it since I became a parent but now I see I will have to! Thank you for sharing, LOVE this post! :)
    Lindsey@Kindred Spirit Mommy’s latest post: What We’re Reading: Babar and His Family {With Giveaway!}

  28. Cara says:

    I loved Little Women when I was 12, and your post has inspired me to re-read it. It might just be the next read aloud I share with my little women. Oh, and to answer your question: I am a total Beth!

  29. so beautiful. and really where my heart is at these days as I parent my own young adult.
    renee @ FIMBY’s latest post: When Wholehearted Blogging is Difficult

  30. I read this book a couple of years ago, and actually read the whole huge thing, which I never had before. God used it to nudge my heart to write fiction. So many wonderful lessons can be learned through the trials and misadventures of the girls, while the reader learns from the wisdom and experience of Marmee’s gentle voice. I loved it. Thank you for writing about the classics!
    Charity@TheHomeschoolExperiment’s latest post: Teaching Conversation Skills

  31. I’ve always loved Little Women, but reading it after becoming a mother, I appreciate it even more. Can’t tell you how many times I got teary-eyed re-reading it! What a lovely post. I’ve always loved Marmee and my own mother actually chose “Marmee” as the name my kids call her instead of Grandma, since she loves Little Women as much as I do. I think I’m a mixture of Jo and Amy. I’d like to think I’m all Jo, but silly, selfish Amy often rears her head :) (Not that Amy’s all bad, by any means!) Thanks for this delightful read.
    Haley @ Carrots for Michaelmas’s latest post: This Week’s Miscellany: Vol. 39

  32. thanks for this! how inspiring to think of taking the “pulse” of my home. i notice myself doing that as i slow down to enjoy my children & what we’re doing here at home, largely at your encouragement, jamie!
    thank you for staying true to your heart’s calling.
    love it.
    jill at tinyandsmall’s latest post: throwing up in church.

  33. LeAnna says:

    I read a great biography of Louisa May Alcott last year, Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little women by Harriet Reisen, which you might enjoy. It was so eye-opening to me about how difficult it was to live and mother at that time, and how Louisa’s mother kept their family together through so much suffering. It raised my impression of Marmee even more!

  34. I’m definitely a Jo. I reread this book every few years – so near and dear to my heart

  35. but I haven’t read it since becoming a Marmee myself (digs through books to find it)

  36. Steph says:

    I read it so long ago I can’t remember! Great post – it’s inspiring me to reread it.
    Steph’s latest post: Preparing for Survival Mode: Life with a Newborn

  37. Heather says:

    I can remember reading this book in the third grade – because I got busted by my teacher for reading it under the desk while she was teaching! I was (and am) a serious bookworm! I always loved Jo when I was a girl – although in reality I was as painfully shy as Beth. This past fall I read it again and was struck by the amazing life lessons it taught. Marmee’s marital advice to Meg when she and her husband were struggling with raising the twins is still so applicable. When I got to the end of the book where they are all at a picnic at Jo’s school I burst into tears (mind you, I was listening to an audio-book at work!). God has recently opened my heart to adoption and foster care, and I hope I can be as loving and open and willing to take in the kids that come my way as Jo was!

  38. Karen says:

    Since I have a boy, you inspired me to pick up Little Men and it’s every bit as inspiring in how they raise all those boys! Thanks for reminding me of these classics!
    Karen’s latest post: {this moment} herding bamboo

  39. Anne Dovel says:

    I love Little Women. What a great blog post! Makes me want to go read the book again and I’m sure at age 48 with 3 boys, I would see it differently than I did when I was a teen!
    Anne
    Anne Dovel’s latest post: Healthier Molasses Crinkles

  40. Emily Stapley says:

    What a delightful post, and what delightful followers you have. Such a peaceful place!
    “…trying to be orderly and failing utterly. The Bhaers did their best to have lads behave well at meal times and generally succeeded pretty well, for their rules were few and sensible,… But there are times when hungry boys cannot be repressed without real cruelty, and Saturday evening, after a holiday, was one of those times.”
    -Little Men Ms. Alcott has written the most edifying parenting manuals!

  41. Sheila says:

    I am more like Meg or Beth. I have aspirations like Meg did. But I’m also a homebody like Beth. I am content with being at home and doing my work in silence. But of course that happens in a blue moon since I have a little man. Great perspective on how we can be like Marmee.

  42. Kathie says:

    One of my favourite books and certainly my all-time favourite movie. I’m sure I have it memorized. As a young girl, I identified with Jo – headstrong, aspiring writer, dreamer, impetuous, hot-tempered (hangs head) – but as a mom of 5, I’ve read it as you have – gaining wisdom from marmee and hoping to be my children as she was. Thanks for a lovely post!
    Kathie’s latest post: colour pop!

  43. Gretchen says:

    Brillant!!!
    Thank you for illuminating a favorite book and for your continued insights into the complex role of mothering. Becoming a mother brings so many gifts into one’s life, but it also challenges us to really look in the mirror….not at our reflection, but at our inner self. As I try to model certain behaviors for my children, I’m constantly challenged by my own issues and shortcomings….but like all mothers….I forge on! Thanks so much for your encouragements and insights.

  44. Christine says:

    I loved reading Little Women as a girl and even now, I read it every few years. I have had the same change of viewpoint as I now have my own 3 daughters. I, too, hope to be more like Marmee — what a great example she is to me now!

  45. Love this post! A big part of what makes a book an enduring classic is the universal truth of human nature and the strong character qualities that make those stories really live beyond their time period. The fact that Marmee instills good Christian qualities in her girls by being a good example is what keeps me coming back to this book again and again. It’s been a long-time favorite, but I just recently re-read it with my oldest daughter (11) when we did a series on classic books for girls. I have always identified with Jo because I’m also a writer, but this time I actually found myself thinking about how I can be more like Marmee! I even wrote about it on my blog at the time. I’m raising 3 girls myself now and hoping to have this kind of success with them. Thanks for sharing your insight!
    Sara @ Embracing Destiny’s latest post: Tracks in the snow (Winter Nature Study)

  46. I love this post so much. This is one of my favorite books. I read it over and over when I was young. You’ve pulled such great lessons from the story. I clearly need to go back and read this book again.

  47. Tara says:

    I LOVE Little Women, and I love rereading classics with my children, one of the treasures of homeschooling! I read them so differently as a parent. My husband might be a little tired of hearing me talk about how much I admire the parent in the Little House books (and others!)
    Tara’s latest post: History Education Supliments

  48. Shelly says:

    I read this book for the first time in 6th grade and have read it several times since then! I don’t know if I actually identify with her, but my favorite character is Jo, as well.
    Shelly’s latest post: Navigating the Red Tape- Part 1: How Do I Know What My Kids Are Learning?

  49. Lovely!

    I definitely identified with Jo. Amy was too prissy, Beth too angelic, and Meg too dull. But, of course, I still loved them all.
    Caroline Starr Rose’s latest post: Classroom Connections: BIRD by Crystal Chan + Giveaway

  50. Beth says:

    A lovely post! Little Women has been one of the books of my heart since I was 9. I always identified with Jo when I was younger, but my recent read-through of the book again (with my daughter) made me realize how strongly I now identify with Marmee and how much she’s shaped my understanding of motherhood. I recently wrote about this for Literary Mama…if anyone is interested in reading my reflections on how parenthood changed my reading perspective, here’s the article link: http://www.literarymama.com/litreflections/archives/2013/12/marmee-through-the-window.html

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