Little Women (2019), directed by Greta Gerwig

Parenting is never finished. As I get older, and I am now a grandfather, I still want to parent my children. The Talmud tells us that one of the obligations of a parent is to teach your child how to swim. Most of the commentators interpret to mean that parents should teach them how to swim through life, and kids sometimes need guidance even when they are older. From time to time, I have conversations with my older children in which I share experiences from my own life that I think may help them. Here is one example.

Several months ago, I had a restless sleep dreaming about a decision I made perhaps twenty years ago. I realized that I made the decision without consulting others because I felt I knew all the possible repercussions of that decision. But years later, I realized that my decision was okay but not the best one I could have made. I decided to share that experience with one of my children and, thereby, give him a useful tool for navigating his own life.

I told him that even when you get older and are successful, it is still prudent and wise to consult with people older and wiser than you to get their perspective on a situation. It is a mistake to think that you know it all and forget to take advantage of the wisdom of others. Always, if at all possible, seek out mentors and seek parental wisdom.

This happens in Little Women, the most recent film iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s classic about four sisters reared in Concord, Massachusetts. All of the sisters are very different from one another, but they are bound closely by strong feelings of familial love. Jo is a teacher and wants to be a published author in a male-dominated world. Amy’s interest is in painting, and she wants to be a great artist. Meg wants to be married, and Beth is enthralled by music as she plays the piano. Into this family enters Laurie, the grandson of their neighbor and very much a free spirit. Together, they discuss their hopes and aspirations for the future.

The real guiding light of the family is Marmee, the mother, who by example teaches them the important values of life. While her husband is serving with the Union army in the Civil War, she maintains the home front. Even when food is scarce, she encourages her daughters to give their meager breakfast to their poor neighbor Mrs. Hummel and her starving children. At moments of crisis, she unites with her children in prayer, stressing that one’s connection with the Almighty can enable one to survive adversities.

Moreover, Marmee gives her older girls good advice that is transformative at times. For example, Jo shares with her mother her disappointment with herself: “What is wrong with me? I’ve made so many resolutions and written sad notes and cried over my sins, but it just doesn’t seem to help. When I get in a passion I get so savage I could hurt anyone and I’d enjoy it.” Marmee’s response: “You remind me of myself. I’m angry nearly every day of my life. I’m not patient by nature, but with nearly forty years of effort I’m learning to not let it get the better of me.” Upon hearing Marmee’s honest appraisal of her own response to anger, Jo tells her, “I’ll do the same, then.” This serves as a classic example of good parenting. Marmee recognizes Jo’s feelings and does not deny them. She, instead, looks for a way in which to correct Jo constructively and sweetly so that she is better prepared to deal with adversity in the future.

Emuna Braverman, a Jewish educator, writes about good parenting fundamentals. Here are some of them: “The first is that we constantly need to pray. Parenting is a tough job. We need the Almighty’s help at every step of the way.

The second is that children are not blank slates or lumps of clay. They come with personalities and drives, with strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to help finely tune their qualities, to give them focus, to assist them in making the most of their strengths.”  

King Solomon tells us to “educate each child according to his way.” This aphorism reminds us that each child is different with different needs. There is no “one size fits all” parenting. We need to appreciate and respond to these differences.

Marmee in Little Women presents us with an example of good parenting. She is wise and self-effacing. She is modeling the kind of behavior that will enable her children to be successful adults, possessing both intelligence and good character. She is a person worth emulating.

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