In Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women, the message is clear: Marmee just knows.
From encouraging her quartet of daughters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – to seek fulfilment, while also helping those in need (hands up if you managed to keep a dry eye watching the girls give up their Christmas meal) to teaching by example (slipping her own scarf into the package she gives to a man whose sons have gone to war, to keep him warm), Marmee March is the parent we strive to be.
But in an already award-winning performance by Laura Dern, she is fallible, too – and happy to admit this to her girls. Here are five parenting tips we took away from Gerwig’s masterful re-telling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic book.
(Warning: Contains spoilers about the film and book)
“Girls have to go out into the world and make up their own minds about things,” Marmee says. This, even though times were hard for women in post-Civil War America (Amy talks memorably of marriage being an “economic proposition”, otherwise a woman has nothing – not even the “property” of her own children).
Later, after Jo inherits Aunt March’s huge stately pile, Marmee is right there by her side, supporting her as she transforms it into a school for girls to learn.
On Christmas morning, the girls rush down to the kitchen to find the table filled with delicious treats. But Marmee teaches them – and us – an important lesson about sacrifice and helping others.
“Mrs Hummel has a brand-new baby,” she says. “All six of her children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, because the house is so cold. There is nothing to eat over there, and they are suffering and hungry. Will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?”
After a moment’s hesitation, the girls do it – and the very next scene sees them skipping and laughing through the snow on their way to their good deed.
The sacrifices Marmee must have made – while her husband is away at war – are only ever hinted at in the film, but it makes you respect her all the more.
Forgiving each other
When Amy (Florence Pugh) burns Jo’s precious novel in revenge after a bitter row, it looks like the two sisters may never reconcile. But Marmee steps in with her trademark wisdom. “Don’t let the sun go down upon your anger,” she tells Jo. “Forgive each other. Begin again tomorrow.”
Her warning is prescient, too – the very next day, Amy comes close to drowning when she falls into an icy lake. The sisters are brought back together by the shock of almost losing each other – a stark reminder of the importance of never being too proud to say sorry or admit we are wrong to the ones we love, even when we’re the grown-up.
Dealing with anger
“There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend,” Marmee says to free-spirited Jo (Saiorse Ronan), when she laments her impulsiveness, passion and potential to be “savage”.
Apparently a real-life quote from Alcott’s mother, this line teaches children that it’s okay not to be perfect – and nobody can be, all of the time. The important thing is self-acceptance and simply trying to be the best you can be.
Marmee isn’t afraid to admit her own faults to her children, either. “I’m angry nearly every day of my life,” Marmee confides in Jo. “I am not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort, I’m learning to not let it get the better of me.”
Being true to yourself
In an emotional scene, Jo talks to her mother about whether or not she should have accepted her neighbour and best friend Laurie’s marriage proposal.
“I just feel like women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” Jo says. “And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.”
Marmee asks if she loves Laurie – really loves him... enough to marry him. When Jo stalls, Marmee points out gently, “that’s not loving”, reminding us how vital it is to encourage our children to be true to themselves, to support their decisions and to help them to be who they really want to be.