What Little Women’s Marmee Can Teach Parents in the Age of Social Media

Many modern parents send messages to or about their children through a box. This box has a screen, a keypad, and instant access to hundreds of friends around the world.

When these parents were growing up, this box did not exist. And so these modern parents have had to chart new waters. Without the advantage of seeing their own parents model how best to use it, they must learn on their own how to fit the box into their lives in ways that benefit their families.

Yet perhaps their forebears imparted more wisdom than they realized. For although I am referring to the computer (and the internet), this is not the first box that has been employed as a tool of communication. The people of the past might not have had the same exact box that modern parents do, but many had some form of it. And many used these boxes as a means of sending messages to or about their children.

Marmee, Jo, and the “P.O.” Box

In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the character Mrs. March (“Marmee”) has access to such a box. It has no on/off switch, no charger, and no “like” button, but it connects her with friends and family nonetheless.

It is a mailbox—a “post office”—that the March family’s next-door neighbor, Laurie, has set up between the March and Laurence properties, so that the residents of both houses can send things to one another.

“The P.O. was a capital little institution,” writes Alcott, “and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office. Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden seeds and long letters, music and gingerbread….”

One summer day, Beth March, the “postmistress,” delivers the mail, and one letter is for her sister, Jo, from their mother. Knowing that Jo has been working on controlling her temper, Marmee has written her daughter a letter of encouragement.

“I write a little word to tell you with how much satisfaction I watch your efforts to control your temper,” the letter begins, and then Marmee goes on to tell Jo how she has seen and noticed all the efforts—“trials,  failures, or successes”—Jo has made and how she believes in the sincerity of Jo’s resolution.

“Go on, dear, patiently and bravely,” she concludes, “and always believe that no one sympathizes more tenderly with you than your loving mother.”

Reading the letter, Jo sheds happy tears, for, as we read, “she had thought that no one saw and appreciated her efforts to be good; and this assurance was doubly precious, doubly encouraging, because unexpected, and from the person whose commendation she most valued.”

Through the box Laurie set up between their yards, Marmee’s private message of comfort and confidence imparts joy and hope to the daughter who struggles with vice and longs to be good.

Marmee and Today’s Box

What does this exchange have to do with the box that modern parents have at their fingertips? It demonstrates how parents might succeed in doing their job well, by using that box well.

Marmee had other choices. There were other ways she could have used the box to broach the problem of Jo’s temper.

She could have used it to vent to friends and family about her daughter: Can you believe the way Jo behaved? Here’s a picture I drew of the sour face she made when she was punished. I’ve never known such an exasperating child!

Marmee could have used the box to tease or embarrass her daughter: Dear Jo, shall I tell your friend Laurie all about your terrible temper?

She could have sent emotional posts through the box to win pity and to commiserate with her acquaintances: Poor Jo. She’s struggling so with her anger and her temper. It just breaks my heart that she can’t seem to be good no matter how hard she tries.

She could have taken notes every time she saw Jo try to control her temper, and sent the news about Jo’s failures and successes to family and friends through the box: Jo had a breakthrough today! She almost let her anger get the best of her, but stopped herself! That’s my girl. Everyone in her inner circle would share the joys and sorrows of each moment in Jo’s drama—at the expense of Jo’s privacy.

Or Marmee could have been so busy writing these messages to send in the box that she ignored Jo when she came to her for help and needed her attention.

She could have done any of these things, but she did not. She knew better than to vent about Jo, to embarrass her, or to reveal personal information about her to other people who had no need or right to know. Instead, Marmee chose to use the box to address her daughter’s shortcomings in a manner at once both private and positive.

In doing so, she gave an example that modern parents can follow. What she posted in the “P.O.” box of old can help guide what parents post online today. Here are a few of the standards that Marmee’s example might suggest for parents navigating social media:

  1. Make sure that posts will encourage, and never embarrass. As Marmee and Jo showed, parents who honor their children’s personal dignity gain their children’s trust.
  2. Keep behavioral corrections and personal weaknesses private and confidential. A child’s offenses and struggles are not for the public eye, but for the eyes of the parents who have been entrusted with the sacred duty of helping them learn virtue and overcome challenges. A child should be able to depend on his parents not to reveal his private battles to their whole network of cyber-friends.
  3. Post only things that enhance the relationship between parent and child. Sometimes this means imitating Marmee by posting kind words to or about a child (as long as the public posts are about public accomplishments, such as winning a contest, and not private successes, such as overcoming a vice.) And sometimes it means imitating her by not posting at all—for Marmee’s brief posting to the P.O. was a drop in the bucket compared to the times she was not posting, but instead was giving herself over to the maternal call of being fully present to her children in person, listening warmly and speaking lovingly.

What Marmee does for Jo in Little Women is worthy for parents to emulate in today’s world. Even if our modern boxes are different because they light up, make noise, and reach the ends of the earth—the principles for employing them remain the same: Use the box for the good of the child. To lift up, never to let down. To maintain privacy, never to violate it. To help, never to harm. In this way, parents can be like Marmee—“doubly precious, doubly encouraging” to the children God gave them to protect and to love.

image: Both volumes of Little Women (volume 1: 1868, volume 2: 1869) / *AC85.Aℓ194L.1869 pt.2aa, Houghton Library, Harvard University

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Maura Roan McKeegan is the author of a number of Catholic children's books, including the award-winning Old and New series, which introduces children to biblical typology. Her latest books are Julia Greeley: Secret Angel to the Poor (Ignatius-Magnificat); Beloved Son: Joseph and Jesus (Emmaus Road); and The Poorest Shepherd (OSV). She is co-author, with Scott Hahn, of Seven Clues: A Catholic Treasure Hunt (Loyola Press). Her articles have appeared in various magazines. You can contact her at [email protected]

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