Little House: Let's Read Big Woods, Chapter 3

[Content Note: Corporal Punishment]

Little House in the Big Woods: Chapter 3

Continuing on in the spirit of the Let's Read, Chapter 3 has guns and corporal punishment.  Woot!

And gods help me, but I always forget -- when I'm not reading Little House -- just how big of a penchant Little House has for corporal punishment. I hesitate to even call a lot of what happens in Little House "spankings"; a fair few of the punishments dished out -- usually in flashbacks and usually to boys -- are to my mind flat-out beatings.* Which is really quite appalling to me.

* I'm not really one to parse a strong difference between spankings and beatings, but I do see a difference between how my parents chose to discipline me and how the corporal punishments in Little House are frequently portrayed. For clarification of my lexicon, "spanking" would be a hand-to-the-butt; "beating" would be basically any other form of physical striking of a child. However, I respect that other people parse these words differently. I also respect my right to hold the opinion that the differences are pretty moot as far as I'm concerned because I believe both have the potential to be highly damaging to children.

And, yeah, another time, another place. I get that. But ... no. Because, (a) I don't think "things were different then" is pretty much ever a good thing to say because it tends to normalize abuse and forget that there were a lot of people who were fighting tooth and nail to change things, so what better way to remember their legacy than to completely erase it with the swipe of a single platitude, amiright? and also, (b) we're not just products of our culture. We have senses to take in information and minds to reason based on the information provided.

I was a product of corporal punishment. I came out of that environment damned convinced to never do that to any child of mine because it didn't fucking work, and what it did do to me was not good. I didn't need my cultural to tell me that; I figured that out by sitting down and working out how something had affected me.

And I don't mean that in a "bootstraps!" kind of way; I get that not everyone can do that. That's ... well, that is what it is. I'm not here to be all judgey on folks. But I have a real chip on my shoulder over corporal punishment, particularly the kind in Little House because ye dogs, but Laura's extended family sound like bullies to me. My opinion.


  “Tell us about the Voice in the Woods,” Laura would beg him.
   Pa crinkled up his eyes at her. “Oh, no!” he said. “You don’t want to hear about the time I was a naughty little boy.”
   [...] “WHEN I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.
   [...] “I was afraid of the dark and the wild beasts, but I dared not go home to my father without the cows. So I ran through the woods, hunting and calling. All the time the shadows were getting thicker and darker, and the woods seemed larger, and the trees and the bushes looked strange.
   [...] “That thing in the dark came after me and called again, Who-oo?
   “I ran with all my might. I ran till I couldn’t breathe and still I kept on running. Something grabbed my foot, and down I went. Up I jumped, and then I ran. Not even a wolf could have caught me.
   [...] “Well,” Pa said, “then your Grandpa went out into the yard and cut a stout switch. And he came back into the house and gave me a good thrashing, so that I would remember to mind him after that.
   “A big boy nine years old is old enough to remember to mind,” he said. “There’s a good reason for what I tell you to do,” he said, “and if you’ll do as you’re told, no harm will come to you.”
   “Yes, yes, Pa!” Laura would say, bouncing up and down on Pa’s knee. “And then what did he say?”
   He said, “If you’d obeyed me, as you should, you wouldn’t have been out in the Big Woods after dark, and you wouldn’t have been scared by a screech-owl.”

Neat! Isn't that a neat story? That is such a neat story!

Here are all the things I like about that story.

I totally love that Pa was a very little boy left alone in the very big and totally dangerous Big Woods. (A chapter or two from now, a grown woman will be very nearly killed by a panther!) I completely adore that Pa was never told that his safety was more important than the cows and that if there was ever any trouble he was to come straight home rather than risk his life looking for them. I utterly adore that his instincts to stay away from home because home was more dangerous than the Big Woods once he'd failed to be a perfect cow-herd were actually correct. I just adore that a tale of a little boy being beaten for being scared and lost and alone is held up as loving correction by a devoted grandparent.

Such a neat story.

Such a neat story, in fact, that it will essentially be repeated in a chapter or two.


Also worthy of note: This is the first chapter in the series that will mention "Indians". Specifically that Pa liked to pretend that he was fighting them. Probably for their land. This is ... kind of topical later, I think.


depizan said...

I'm vaguely disturbed that Laura likes hearing this story so very much. Now, it might just be because she likes knowing that her dad hasn't always been perfect and was once young and prone to mistakes (or "mistakes") like any child, but... I don't know, standing alone like that it comes off like "Yay, my dad got beaten when he was a kid!" I'm not sure how to process that.

Isabel C. said...

I get the impression that it wasn't the beating so much, for Laura, as the fun of having Pa have looked silly and gotten in trouble: I definitely remember when I was little and found out that my grandparents were my parents' parents, being rather taken with the idea that, say, my dad had a mother and thus one could totally *tell his mother on him*, to the vague amusement of all adults present.

It's definitely a thing, though, that the LH books, and especially Big Woods, treat getting beaten as sort of a punchline, or part of one.

Pqw, who used to be Laiima said...

Content note: violence

I grew up in a family where my maternal grandfather talked about his father beating his sister, his brothers, or him, for various infractions against discipline. Actual beatings, with a strap, not 'spanking'. Grandfather tried to protect his next-younger sister or much-younger siblings, but wasn't always successful. When my great-grandfather was murdered, none of his kids nor his wife were terribly sad.

My grandfather, as a father himself, leaned more toward emotional abuse of girls, and coddling of boys, although I believe hitting with straps was occasionally involved. He and his wife also used family pets as proxies to emotionally hurt each other and their children. My mother didn't realize there was anything odd or troubling about any of this. She remains a devoted fan of her father, while detesting her mother. (Both long dead now.)

My mother 'mellowed' still further: just emotional abuse, of girls; and beating on my sister with whatever was handy. My brothers were allowed all sorts of privileges we girls could only dream about.

My father's family was MUCH WORSE. He himself had a moment of clarity as a teenager after he almost killed someone in a fight. He never laid a hand on any of us kids. But neither did he protect us from our mother.

I decided not to have children.

Isabel C. said...

And again, kind of odd: after this book, corporal punishment becomes way less frequent. There are a couple of mentions in Farmer Boy (although I don't think Almanzo ever actually gets beaten) and I think one of the teachers whips Nellie Oleson's otherwise-nonexistent-kid-brother, but otherwise, it almost disappears from here on out. I wonder if Laura or Rose changed their attitude toward corporal punishment, or if Laura started editing her childhood so it seemed that she and Mary were always better-behaved, or what.

EdinburghEye said...

My guess is, Laura liked hearing it because Charles Ingalls liked telling it, and Charles liked telling it because (from his perspective) it was a funny story on him.

How did he process being beaten by his father?

As far as I remember, not one of the four Ingalls children is ever hit by their parents except in the clearly ceremonial "birthday spankings". Even when Laura explicitly breaks rules and does something genuinely dangerous, even when she and Mary do what could have been quite serious damage to stacked hay, in later books, neither Charles nor Caroline ever hit them. (I'm going on memory. I could be wrong.) Much later, when Laura is teaching school, she doesn't want to whip her pupils, and not just because she's very young and some of her students are older than her: nor do either Charles or Caroline suggest she should "solve" her problem by having the student whipped. So whatever Charles (and Caroline's) childhood experiences of being beaten, they didn't pass the physical violence on. That's one way: Charles decided he wasn't going to hit his children.

Notably, Charles's brothers don't seem to feel the same way. (It's also possible this was gendered: in all the Little House books and Farmer Boy, boys get beaten: girls don't.) Maybe one reason why Charles Ingalls wanted to take off and get away from his whole extended family was because he wanted to escape the reminder of his father in his brothers, who still cheerfully passed on beatings just as their father had?

(Do you know, I've read the the Little House books Idon'tknowhowmanytimes, and this is the first time that explanation has occurred to me?)

Another way is to tell and re-tell the story of the time he was beaten, focussing on the things that weren't about being beaten, that can be told as a funny story. People do do this.

(I think Caroline Ingalls inflicted some serious psychological abuse on her second daughter - Laura is explicitly Pa's girl and Mary is Ma's girl, and a lot of what Ma says and does to Laura in later books and even in this one, strike me as a woman who doesn't like her daughter very much, though in lots of ways they clearly get on very well as two adults - and Ma does apologise to Laura a couple of times. )

From the perspective of someone who wasn't hit by my parents as a child (at least, only once, when I was 14) and for whom beatings such as Charles describes existed only in fiction, I think for Laura aged 4 the idea of her father being beaten wasn't really real. If her Pa had told her he got spanked, maybe that would have been real. What was real was being scared in the woods, and the story is about being so scared you don't recognise a harmless screech-owl.

Ana Mardoll said...

I think all the Ingalls tales end in beatings. The next one he tells later does, anyway. Which means it's normalized.

And that scares me so much.

depizan said...

That is rather disturbing.

Even if we apply EdinburghEye's theory to it.

Ana Mardoll said...

TW: Sexual Issues re Spanking

They're far from autobiographical, if I understand correctly, and I imagine it's just shy of possible that physical abuse of the girls either wouldn't sell as well or might be something Laura didn't want to dwell on.

If I wrote my autobiography, I personally wouldn't include all my encounters with corporal punishment. Beyond anything else, a parents' hand on the backside can be embarrassing and sexually troubling in later years.

Ana Mardoll said...

Or, continuing that thought, it's possible that there wasn't anything to record. Which, you know, I hope.

Grandpa Ingalls sounds like a real charmer though!

Ana Mardoll said...

Hugs, if you want them. That's so many layers of awful. :(

Loquat said...

Regarding corporal punishment:

I was in a class a few years back where the teacher was telling us there's never any reason to hit a child and corporal punishment just teaches kids that bigger people can use pain to enforce their will on smaller people, etc, etc. She actually got a fair bit of pushback from the class, because a number of students felt that corporal punishment had been necessary for them, and that if they hadn't been subjected to it they would have run wild and turned out much worse.

So now I'm curious if that might be the view Charles and/or his brothers take of things.

Amaryllis said...

in all the Little House books and Farmer Boy, boys get beaten: girls don't.

That's what I was thinking. In other 19th-century novels that I've read (yes, I know the LH books were actually written later) boys are beaten as a matter of course, by fathers and by schoolmasters. Sparing the rod was spoiling the child, and boys were expected to be tough enough to take it. There was only a problem if the beating was exceptionally severe or damaging. But administering a mere "thrashing" was a father's right and duty.

Girls, on the other hand, were hit much less frequently and less harshly. Consider Amy, in Little Women. Her teacher smacks her on the hand for some infraction-- I think it was the pickled-lime incident-- and she's so shocked and mortified-- no one had ever hit her before-- that she refuses to go back to school. And her mother backs her up. For a boy in an equivalent school, a few ruler smacks would be all in a day's work.

Not saying it was right, or wise, or a good way to bring up children. But it was what is was.

Much later, when Laura is teaching school, she doesn't want to whip her pupils, and not just because she's very young and some of her students are older than her: nor do either Charles or Caroline suggest she should "solve" her problem by having the student whipped
Reminds me of an incident in one of the Anne of Green Gables books. Anne too is teaching, and having trouble with one of the boys, and everybody in the village thinks she ought to just whip him already. Anne has vowed to "win her pupils with kindness," but one day she loses her temper and out comes the "long, heavy, hardwood pointer." And guess what, it works-- it's not just that he stops giving her obvious trouble, but that he now respects her. Because the whipping she gave him was 'just as good as a man's'.

And everybody says "we told you so."

Naomi said...

Laura gets beaten by a strap later in "Big Woods," actually. She's beaten by Pa for slapping Mary, in the aftermath of Ma curling both their hair and then instructing them to ask their aunt which she likes better, golden curls or brown curls. Laura pretends to "forget" to ask but Mary, because she is a goody-goody (and the blonde) remembers. The aunt diplomatically says that she likes BOTH sorts just fine. Later, while they're gathering up wood chips, Laura grabs a big chip that Mary is reaching for and Mary snottily says that the aunt lied, EVERYONE knows that golden curls are prettier. Laura slaps Mary across the face, and Pa takes down a strap and whips her with it as punishment.

The thing about this story I actually find most disturbing is the way that Ma sows the seeds of bitter rivalry between these two girls.

Silver Adept said...

Content notes for corporal punishment and experiences thereof:

My parents used spankings as a way of disciplining their children...well, the older ones, anyway, at that age. I don't think it did much in the way of fostering good behavior or relationships. Instead, it made me more likely to want to hide everything from them, especially stuff I knew they wouldn't approve of.

Whenever it comes to what are the regular beatings dispensed, both in history and in historical fiction, the beatings continue, but morale does not improve. In fact, they generally don't curb the behaviors they're supposed to.

Strangely enough, despite all the evidence against it, it continues to be a popular method for trying to discipline children.

Makabit said...

Thanks for recalling that incident, because I did recall there is one time when Laura does get whipped by her father.

The emphasis on Mary's blondeness and how important it is really does linger, although Mary becomes less and less of an actual character as she goes blind. (Rule of nineteenth-century children's literature: no seriously ill or disabled person is capable of brattiness, temper, vanity, strong personal opinions, or sibling rivalry. They just smile sweetly a lot. See also, March, Beth.)

graylor said...

My parents, going by things my mother told me about my siblings (who are all between fifteen and twenty-some years older than I am) were very gendered in their discipline. The last time I was spanked I was being potty-trained, and I was spanked by my brother, no less. Neither of my parents ever mentioned hitting my sisters, but my brothers... I think it was a combination of 'this is just how you raise boys' and just not knowing how to deal with having two Calvins (a'la Calvin & Hobbes) who were born a year apart. Mom told me she threw a heavy metal salt-shaker at one of my brothers, oatmeal at both of them, hot... tea, I think, at both of them, and I'm not sure what exactly happened after the pyramid of Coke incident. Apparently my father was quick with his belt when he was working third shift and the kids woke him up playing, though his violence turned towards my brothers and not my sisters (or ever me, so far as I can remember).

I think Mom may have mellowed by the time I came around. She told me about how her mother would send her out to choose her own switch when her mother wanted to switch her and how awful that was. Though, then again, she told me about the things she threw at my brothers as funny stories (she didn't actually hit them! she had such bad aim! lol!), so, yeah.


It's bad that my first thought when I started reading this piece was 'why are they keeping cows in the woods?' But I think it may be relevant to your previous question about how comfortable this family is. Cows eat grass. You only keep cows in the woods if you have no choice, because a. they have to wander around seperately a lot to forgage which makes them more vulnerable to predators and hard to round up, and b. given half a chance they'll head to greener pastures anywhere which can annoy you and your neighbors. Unless your neighbors are like, hey, free cows! yay!, in which case you have even more problems.

EdinburghEye said...

Thanks for remembering that - it's been a long time since I read "Big Woods".

EdinburghEye said...

Much later Mary admits to Laura that she used to be the "good little girl" as a way of annoying Laura and getting Ma's praise.

Arania said...

I'm just starting to read these "Let's Read Little House" entries now. I loved the Little House books when I was a child, I still love them now, and I'm enjoying the posts immensely. And now, with absolute respect for every opinion expressed in the previous comments, I'd like to play devil's advocate.

Every single member of a family in a subsistence farming-herding culture must work. The chores can be difficult, taxing, tedious and dangerous; however, they are vital to the family's survival. If the cows don't come home, there is no milk or meat. If the firewood doesn't get split, the family freezes in winter and can't cook their food. This is not a trivial thing -- in "The Long Winter" the family almost freezes and starves to death. Laura twists straw until her hands are raw and bleeding. I believe it's in "Silver Lake" that she insists on helping with the hay harvest, working in dangerous heat from dawn til dusk at a chore that involves her climbing all over a slippery hay stack yards above the ground. Even in one of the earlier books, the children are left entirely alone for days while Ma and Pa have to travel elsewhere. Children in these cultures are expected to grow up early and be responsible. There is danger. There is peril. It is absolutely unavoidable, and the earlier children learn this the safer they will be. Therefore, the cautionary tale of the Voice in the Woods is how Pa teaches Laura and Mary how dangerous the woods are, and how vitally important responsible and obedient behavior is, without having his children experience the dangers firsthand. It is the same reason that Pa teaches them how to handle firearms. It's better that they understand how to handle them safely before desperate measures must be taken than having to use a firearm in a life-or-death situation without any instruction whatsoever.

Children all over the world still have to live and work in these conditions in order to help their family survive. They handle sharp implements, manage livestock on their own and work chores that would tax an adult. I do not believe this is child abuse; it is my personal opinion (mine alone) that viewing this as child abuse shows our privilege. (Note, though, that I do not wish to imply that any commenter before me has called working chores child abuse.)

Also, and I know this is the most controversial thing I'm going to say, I don't believe a quick open-handed swat on the butt is an abusive action. Again, this is my opinion and mine alone. I understand and respect that many people have different experiences; I don't mean to minimize those experiences at all. I agree that any other corporal punishment is wrong and abusive.

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