Everyone tells you that children grow up too fast. It seems like yesterday that my four children were all little, and our house was full of squeaky toddler voices and baby coos. This past week was full of milestones where I watched my oldest child growing up before my eyes. He still has the same curly hair from his toddler years, but his size, confidence, and independence speak the truth about his age. He seems to be growing up with ease, but I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing.
With each new stage of parenting I’ve entered, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the task. And every time I’ve gotten comfortable with the stage my children are in, they move onto to the next one. If only children came with a manual.
But I fear any manual would do more harm than good. The 19th-century educator Charlotte Mason likes to remind us that children are born people; therefore there is no formula for successfully ushering them into adulthood. More than any parenting book–of which I’ve read a good many–I’ve found stories help shape my thinking about my responsibility and privilege of being called mama.
I recently had the delight of reading the first of Ralph Moody’s books about his childhood. Little Britches is the best kind of coming-of-age book. Based on Moody’s childhood, Little Britches tells the story of the Moody family’s first few years on a Colorado ranch. When they moved in 1906, Ralph was only eight years old, but that didn’t stop his father from having his oldest son work alongside him. Young Moody learns the ins and outs of ranching and is slowly entrusted with more and more responsibility.
There are plenty of adventures to keep readers captivated. Sometimes Ralph puts himself into danger by making bad choices like when he rides up a mountain alone to try to find a friend. Other times, Ralph can’t escape difficulties like when the bullies at school get worse and worse. Even when times are tough–bad weather destroys everything they’ve built, neighbors steal their irrigation water, and animals are lost to illness and injury– the Moody family works together in love to slowly build a house and a ranch.
The Moodys offer readers a glimpse of what living out your weddings vows should look like. Through rich times and poor, good times and bad, Charles and Mame Moody love each other and sacrifice for the good of the other. This deep love and admiration for each other also affects how they parent.
There is much to be learned from Little Britches, and Moody seems to teach his audience effortlessly without preaching or lecturing. He allows the stories of his past to instruct his readers, just as his experiences instructed him. I don’t know all of the lessons children might learn from the book since I have read it only as an adult, but I learned plenty myself.
The Moodys are not afraid of their children failing. When Ralph makes a bad decision or sins against someone, the Moodys are quick to seek restoration. Ralph even tells us that he always loved his father more after he scolded him than he did at any other time. It’s a beautiful picture of how our heavenly father intends discipline to “produce a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). The Moodys also rely on their young son to contribute to the family. In our age of extended adolescence, it is a good reminder that children grow and flourish under responsibility even when it’s hard. As a mentor tells Ralph, the easy ways are “easier to forget. The lessons you remember the longest are the ones that hurt you the most when you learn ‘em.”
In the age of helicopter parenting, Little Britches gives us a picture of what it looks like to guide your children instead of managing them. Charlotte Mason calls this type of supervision “masterly inactivity”–authority that wisely allows children the space to learn, explore, and fail. Ralph finds himself in dangerous situations several times, and it is only through these incidents that he grows and understands rules and principles his parents live by.
I’ve long heard recommendations that every boy needs to read Little Britches, but I think it may be even more important that every parent reads it. Or better yet, that every family reads it together.
The Burkes lived overseas for three years and have been to almost 20 countries together, surviving some adventures they will never speak of to the grandparents.