Helping children navigate the road to virtue is a challenging task. Thousands of books, articles, videos, and programs present strategies for how to discipline children effectively. Many parents have found tremendous help this way, and the abundance of information available for struggling families can be a gift from God in difficult and complicated situations.
Two centuries ago, though, in frontier territory, pioneer families did not have access to this wealth of knowledge. Many were isolated, too, from older relatives who could have lent their wisdom and their hands to help. Yet, despite the lack of professional experts and experienced guides, some exceptional fathers and mothers led the way with examples we can still follow today. Pa and Ma Ingalls are among them.
When Laura Disobeyed
In On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts an episode that demonstrates the typical approach to discipline in the Ingalls family:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Laura Ingalls cannot sleep. Lying in bed beside Mary, she hears Pa’s fiddle singing to her, and she thinks to herself that everything is “beautiful and good, except Laura.”
Earlier that day, she had defied Pa, though he does not know yet of her transgression. Yesterday, the family spent a glorious afternoon swimming in the natural pool of a nearby creek with Pa. At first, she had trouble staying in the safe waters—against Ma’s warnings, she wandered out too far in the deep water. Pa decided to teach her a lesson and “ducked” her by surprise.
“Well, young lady, you went out too far, and how did you like it?” he asked. “You heard Ma tell you to stay close to the bank. Why didn’t you obey her? You deserved a ducking, and I ducked you. Next time you’ll do as you’re told.”
“Y-yes, Pa!” Laura answered, still spluttering. “Oh, Pa, p-please do it again!” Pa responded with rollicking laughter, and spent the rest of the afternoon ducking her whenever she went out too far.
When they left, Pa told her in no uncertain terms that she was not to go near the swimming-hole without him. It was too dangerous.
Yet that very next afternoon, hot and terribly thirsty, Laura had “remembered with all her might that she must not go near that deep, shady swimming-pool, and suddenly she turned around and hurried toward it.” She would have gone swimming, but a providential badger blocked her path and she ran home instead.
Now, lying in bed listening to Pa’s fiddle, knowing that he thinks she is a “good little girl,” the guilt weighs on her until she can bear it no longer. Barefoot, in her nightgown and nightcap, she climbs out of bed and goes to Pa to confess.
“What is it, little half-pint?” he asks, smiling down at her. In a quivering voice, she tells him.
“Pa, I—I—started to go to the swimming hole.”
“You did! Well, what stopped you?” Pa says. Laura tells him more about it, and then waits in the dark beside him while he quietly thinks. She cannot see his face in the dark, but she leans against his knee and can feel “how strong and kind” he is.
After a while, Pa decides that Laura must stay within Ma’s sight and be watched all the next day, and after that she can try again to earn back her parents’ trust.
“I am sure she will be good,” Ma says from her place in the dark. The next day is dreadfully long—Laura cannot even fetch water alone—but once her penance is over, she is free to roam again. She understands that she could have drowned, and that the badger likely saved her life.
“Once you go on being naughty, it is easier to go on and on, and sooner or later something dreadful happens,” Ma says, and Laura agrees. She knows that now.
What Pa and Ma Did—and What People Today Can Still Do
Some might argue that such simple measures are antiquated. The Ingalls family knew nothing about the highly technological times in which modern families live, so how could they set us an example in child-rearing?
They can, because people are the same. No matter how far technology comes or how complex a society becomes, people’s hearts crave the same things. Children crave the same sense of safety, trust, comfort, and love that Pa and Ma gave to Laura.
Children crave the safety that comes when adults in their lives set clear boundaries for them, as Pa and Ma set for Laura. She was told to stay close to the shore, and when she didn’t, Pa ducked her. She would remember to listen now. Then she was told not to go to the swimming pool by herself, and when she disobeyed, her conscience knew she should have listened. Even though her parents would never have known, she told them the truth anyway. Children naturally want adults to set rules for them; and, as Laura showed, even when they disobey, they want the rules to be enforced. A world with rules is a safer place.
Children crave the ability to trust the adults in their lives to respect their dignity and their privacy. Laura would not have trodden barefoot across the dirt floor to Pa and Ma if she thought they would react unfairly. They did not threaten, accuse, or berate Laura. They did not gossip or laugh with their friends about her disobedience. They did not make an example of her in front of Mary and Carrie. They spoke with her in confidence and remembered that Laura is a person, entitled to the same privacy that they would want for themselves. They knew it was their responsibility to help Laura learn to behave well. In the Ingalls home, discipline was a form of loving correction done for the sake of the child, not an outlet for anger or a matter of public discourse.
Children also crave the comfort that they feel when adults enforce rules but can also laugh with them. When Laura asked Pa to duck her again, Pa laughed out loud even though he was in the middle of correcting her disobedience. Later in the book, Pa tells Laura and Mary not to slide down the haystack, so they obediently do not slide down it—they roll instead. When he finds the ruined haystack, Pa asks Laura in a “terrible voice” whether she slid down it.
“We did not slide, Pa,” Laura answers earnestly. “But we did roll down it.”
Pa turns around and walks away; Laura can see his back shaking, and when he turns back around to tell her firmly that the straw “MUST—STAY—STACKED,” his eyes are twinkling though his words are stern. Amid the solemn responsibility of correcting his child, Pa’s sense of humor is never lost.
Finally, children crave the love that “believes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7), especially that believes in their ability to learn from their mistakes and do better. Ma sums it up perfectly in her words: “I am sure she will be good.” Ma could have said any number of things to give Laura a guilt trip and heap anxiety upon her. But she chose to build her up instead, and the next day, Laura rose to fulfill Ma’s prophesy.
Although the Ingalls family lived in the nineteenth century, they still set an example for the twenty-first-century families who are faced with the knowledge of one thing that does not change: Children make mistakes. Knowing this, adults in positions of authority who want to discipline children with dignity can do what Pa and Ma did.
We can set clear boundaries. We can listen. We can talk privately and confidentially with the child. We can ask questions to help us better understand what happened. We can calmly determine sensible and just consequences—without forgetting to smile. We can believe the child can and will do better.
Will there be challenging cases, in our day and age, which require more work than this? Of course, just as there were challenging cases in the Ingalls’ time. We cannot go wrong, though, with implementing these foundational principles. Every child needs safety, trust, comfort, and love. Children who receive these gifts can give them, in turn, to the next generation. They can pass along the message that Laura’s stories left to all of the readers of the Little House series: When parents treat their children with respect, as Ma and Pa did, even behavioral corrections can become warm memories that last a lifetime and beyond.