Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Little House series, and the race to adulthood

Title:  The Little House series
Author:  Laura Ingalls Wilder
Published:  1932 - 1971
Challenges:  Summer reread

"Every Christmas is better than the Christmas before," Laura thought.  I guess it must be because I'm growing up."
This summer I reread The Little House series, and I discovered a great lesson: that maturity and adulthood are regarded as urgent and crucial - worn like a crown of righteousness.  

The Bible conveys a similar message that we should desire to grow up, mature, and become adults.  Adulthood brings wisdom and understanding, favor with God, and growth in salvation.  Babies require only the milk of the Word, but adults can handle the solid food of Scripture.  The Bible encourages man to put away childish things - the sooner the better. 

Maturity encourages obedience (or obedience encourages maturity), and you cannot have one without the other.  Self-control is a sign of maturity, and it is one of the more difficult commandments to obey - controlling our true inner emotions and often-selfish desires, while displaying immediate obedience, when we would rather do as we please.  

Following are just a few passages from The Little House books that represent these attributes in the race to adulthood. 

Little House in the Big Woods

The first book of the Little House series demonstrates how obedience should be executed - instantly and without question - because obedience can be the difference between life and death.

One evening, five-year old Laura went out with Ma to milk Sukey, the cow, while Pa was away for the night.  In the darkness, they saw the large shape of Sukey standing within the barnyard gate; and Ma reached in to slap Sukey's shoulder, in order to move her into the barn. Ma realized it was not Sukey she slapped, but a bear, and she immediately commanded Laura to walk back to the house.  Without question, Laura turned around and began to walk back, until Ma caught her up and ran with her to the house.

When they were safely inside, Laura asked Ma if it was a bear, and if it could hurt them? Ma assured her that they were safe in the house and praised Laura because she was a good girl, to do exactly as Ma told her and to do it quickly, without asking why.  

Farmer Boy

Almanzo and his father were out collecting ice on the river when a curious Almanzo fell into the icy water. Check out this nine-year old's conscience:
Father stood over him, big and terrible.  
"You ought to have the worst whipping of your life," Father said.
"Yes, Father," Almanzo whispered.  He knew it.  He knew he should have been more than careful.  A boy of nine-years old is too big to do foolish things because he doesn't stop to think.  Almanzo knew that, and felt ashamed.  He shrank up small inside his clothes and his legs shivered, afraid of the whipping. Father's whippings hurt.  But he knew he deserved to be whipped.  The whip was on the bobsled.
"I won't thrash you this time," Father decided.  "But see to it you stay away from that edge."
Towards the end of Farmer Boy, Almanzo had pride in his heart, as he recognized his abilities to help with the farm work.
He helped to feed the patient cows, and the horses eagerly whinnying over the bars of their stalls, and the hungrily bleating sheep, and the grunting pigs.   
And he felt like saying to them all, "You can depend on me.  I'm big enough to take care of you all."
Little House on the Prairie

Pa is gone when two Indians entered the little log cabin, and Laura and Mary argued about freeing Jack, their bulldog, from his chain.  Laura wanted to let him loose, to protect Ma, but Mary reminded her of Pa's stern orders never to let him go. 

When Pa returned, they told him the truth, and Pa rebuked them with words of wisdom.
"Did you girls even think of turning Jack loose?"  he asked in a dreadful voice.
Laura's head bowed down and she whispered, "Yes, Pa."
"After I told you not to?" Pa said, in a more dreadful tone.
Laura couldn't speak, but Mary chocked, "Yes, Pa."
"After this," he said, in a terrible voice, "you girls remember always to do as you're told.  Don't even think of disobeying me."
"Do as you're told," said Pa, "and no harm will come to you." 
On the Banks of Plum Creek

Here was another example of Laura obeying her conscience to confess her disobedience, which is extremely difficult for anyone to do, especially a child.
Everything was beautiful and good, except Laura. She had broken her promise to Pa.  Breaking a promise was as bad as telling a lie.  Laura wished she had not done it.  But she had done it, and if Pa knew, he would punish her.  
Pa went on playing softly in the starlight.  His fiddle sang to her sweetly and happily.  He thought she was a good little girl. At last Laura could bear it no longer. 
And this is where she tells him how she went to the swimming hole when she was commanded never to go without him.

I could not resist sharing a story about Nellie Oleson.  After school began on Plum Creek, Mary and Laura met Nellie for the first time.  Out of earshot, Mary said,
"My goodness!  I couldn't be as mean as that Nellie Oleson."
Laura thought: "I could.  I could be meaner to her than she is to us, if Ma and Pa would let me."  (And she recognized her accountability for bad behavior, although later she did seek revenge on Nellie.) 
By the Shores of Silver Lake

Times have changed by the opening of this next book, By the Shores of Silver Lake.  Mary lost her sight after a bout with scarlet fever, Pa has gone west to begin a new job and stake out a new place for them to live, and Jack, Laura's trusted dog, who "took care of her," has died.  
Laura knew then that she was not a little girl any more.  Now she was alone; she must take care of herself.  When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up.    
Caroline wanted one of her girls to be a teacher, and that dream fell to Mary.  However, after Mary's illness, it was apparent that Laura would have to be the teacher. Laura never wanted to be a teacher.  Notice her private, internal negotiations as she struggled to put down her disdain for teaching in order to do what she knew was necessary and right.  
Laura's heart jerked, and then she seemed to feel it falling, far, far down.  She did not say anything.  She knew that Pa and Ma, and Mary too, had thought that Mary would be a teacher.  Now Mary couldn't teach, and - "Oh, I won't! I won't!" Laura thought.  "I don't want to!  I can't!"  Then she said to herself, "You must."
I love all of Laura's little bits of honest curiosity, like when Pa warned Laura and Carrie never to go near the grade where the men were working, using rough language.
"Yes, Pa." Laura promised, and Carrie almost whispered, "Yes, Pa."  Carrie's eyes were large and frightened.  She did not want to hear rough language, whatever rough language might be.  Laura would have liked to hear some, just once, but of course she must obey Pa.
The Long Winter

Older sister Mary often challenged Laura's conscience for the better.  During The Long Winter, they sat in the dim light doing needlework.  
"I do believe I have nearly enough done," [Mary] said.  "I'll be ready for you to sew the rug tomorrow, Laura."
 "I wanted to finish this lace first," Laura objected.  "And these storms keep making it so dark I can hardly see to count the stitches."  
"The dark doesn't bother me," Mary answered cheerfully.  "I can see with my fingers."
Laura was ashamed of being impatient.  "I'll sew your rug whenever you're ready," she said willingly.
Later, during their dismal Christmas, Ma suggested they save a special publication to read aloud on that day.
After a moment Mary said, "I think it is a good idea.  It will help us to learn self-denial."
"I don't want to," Laura said.
"Nobody does," said Mary.  "But it's good for us."
Sometimes Laura did not even want to be good.  But after another silent moment she said, "Well, if you and Mary want to, I will.  It will give us something to look forward to for Christmas." 
After some time of being buried in the house under blizzards, Laura became anxious and complained aloud about eating plain brown bread for every meal.  Ma scolded her,
"Don't complain, Laura!"  Ma told her quickly.  "Never complain of what you have. Always remember you are fortunate to have it."
Laura had not meant to complain but she did not know how to explain what she had meant.  She answered meekly, "Yes, Ma."  Then, startled, she looked at the wheat sack in the corner.  There was so little wheat left in it that it lay folded like an empty sack.
"Ma!" she exclaimed, "Did you mean..."  Pa had always said that she must never be afraid.  She must never be afraid of anything.
Charles and Caroline were always wonderful examples of restraint and trust and obedience, all characteristics of maturity.

Little Town on the Prairie

How often I have complained about doing something I do not like or believe I cannot do well, and how quietly Caroline kept this to herself, until Laura noticed it later in her life. This is a testament to Caroline's character.
Laura had never before known that Ma hated sewing. Her gentle face did not show it now, and her voice was near exasperated.  But her patience was so tight around her mouth that Laura knew she hated sewing as much as Laura did.
I hate sewing, too; I suppose I am not any good at keeping it private. (Something to work on, maybe.)

These Happy Golden Years

This is one of my favorite (well, they are all my favorite) experiences of The Little House books because we truly see Laura blossom into the beautiful, brave, honest, and honorable young woman that her parents have been training her up to be. 

Maybe it is me, but I found Laura's time at the Brewster school to be the most horrific experience. Laura had to spend three weeks teaching a small school too far from DeSmet for her to stay at home.  She had to board at the Brewster's claim during the week.  Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Brewster's home was a miserable and dangerous environment.  After the knife incident (Mrs. Brewster threatened Mr. Brewster in the middle of the night), sleep was a definite complication.  And yet, Laura never complained to her parents about the miserable horrors of staying there.  She only shared her concerns later about her teaching abilities.  Not only would my parents have heard all about it, but also I would have been out of there by the end of week one.  And that would be because there were no cell phones and I'd have to wait for the weekend, when Manny picked me up.

The First Four Years

And finally, this last story tells of Laura's and Manny's first four years together.  For three years she consented to trying farming with Manny, and if it failed they would try something new.  Well, as with farming, they had success and trials, all the same.  At the end of four years, she thought rather maturely,

It would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle.

Together, she and Manny proved to be a courageous, honorable, responsible, and hard working couple.  These are the things that mature adults are made of.  

This post has been difficult to conquer because there is so much I want to draw from this series, but I had to be selective.  And then I didn't take notes on maturity, but the topic only came to me after I completed the series.  I remember numerous other examples of maturity, but I could not spend any more time trying to search for them. 

Then, while I was putting this post together, I wondered if anyone had written anything on The Little House series pertaining to the topic of maturity and adulthood, and I found something from this site: The Imaginative Conservative: The Unfairness of Fair Hair: Duty and Maturity in Little House in the Big Woods.  It's super short, if you are interested in a little different perspective.  

Maybe someday I'll do a different post on these books and focus on a different topic.  There are so many areas to explore: nature, liberty, independence, women's issues, farming, and humor.  Believe me!  These books were not only written for young people.  

If you've read the series, even long ago, what is one theme or topic you take away from these stories?


  1. It was so nice to read your post as it brought back such feelings of nostalgia! I loved these books and it's been so long since I've read them. I think the aspect I appreciated most was Laura's honesty; she showed herself in a bad light if she deserved it. It's not only instructional for readers but it allows children to see her as an ally; they can know that we all make mistakes and can learn from them.

    1. I love Laura's honesty, too, and how she shares her conscience with the reader. I think people need to be more forthcoming like this, even if it is difficult.

  2. What a lovely post! Thank you for sharing your insights. I read The Little House books for the first time years ago. I too noticed how Laura took pains to be honest about her feelings and her behavior. It could not have been easy to portray herself in a bad light sometimes, but her honesty can be a lesson for children and adults. I'm definitely reading these books again.

    1. Thanks, Luci. The Little House books offer great life lessons. I hope to reread them again, too, someday. : )

  3. How I love these books! My mom read them aloud to us over and over and over when I was a kid -- my dad loved them, so he would ask her to read them aloud in the car when we went on any drive longer than ten minutes or so. I've read the first one aloud to my kids, and am planning to read the second this fall. They are so inspirational. I can look back at my own childhood, too, and see much of myself in Laura -- that strong sense of "fairness" and determination to "prove oneself" were huge parts of my personality from early on. (And I have brown hair, as does my father, so that made me feel a kinship to her as well.)

    1. I love that your dad asked your mom to read them aloud in the car. There is so much to learn from these books, and there is something for everyone - even dads.

    2. My husband never read them, and he is now the one requesting that I read them aloud on our car trips! Definitely something there for everyone.

    3. It just keeps getting better and better!

  4. Yes! All of this is so good! It's interesting how society teaches that growing up should be feared, when in fact, it's a Biblical and natural thing.

    The obedience and discipline really stuck out to me, especially in the first few books. You don't really notice how important discipline is until you see kids who haven't had it... I love Laura's attitude of doing what has to be done, even if you don't want to. It's something I want to cultivate. It was interesting to see that hiding your feelings inside and not showing them on your face meant you were a grownup. I see the maturity in that, but I think theres a time and a way to let your emotions be shown. And I love how Ma kept all her complaints quiet and trusted Pa soooo implicitly! I also found it interesting that Laura didn't complain about the knife incident. It's one thing to be with disagreeable people, another to be with dangerous ones. There are so many topics in these books! My favorite was the liberty discussion in Little Town. It was so true and it just made me so happy! We are free because we obey God! Great post!

    1. Ashley,


      OK, I commented over at your blog (twice). Sorry for the duplication. But if it doesn't show up, then I don't know what happened. I was saying that I was excited to see that someone else read the series over the summer, and I started to comment but had to quit my writing to attend to an issue at home. I had been meaning to return, but you showed up here.

      Anyway, about maturity - this is true. Today we are taught and are teaching our children to remain child-like for as long as possible. I am guilty of this, too. We put such ideas in our young people, that they are not capable and not expected to grow up so quickly, be responsible, and have self-control over their emotions and words. That seems so strange to us that we should cover up, mask, and hide our true feelings. But in Laura's time, one must exhibit self-control, especially of their true feelings, b/c it was part of maturing. Self-control is one of the most difficult laws to follow. It is difficult to control our tongues...but the Bible tells us we must do it.

      I agree that it is important to express our feelings, but there is probably a mature way to do that, too. Not like today when there are no limits to how we express ourselves. Some expression is better left unsaid (for example:. Madonna, Miley Cyrus, or even violent protests groups that demand to have their way, etc.)

      The important lesson in discipline is that it leads to self-discipline, too. Like Laura said (paraphrase) once she is old enough, she will be her own boss, and she will be accountable to God. So she must learn to take care of herself and train herself, and that included self-control of her behavior.