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  • Writer's pictureRobert Ahdoot

Pa, from the "Little House" books, is THE MAN.

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

Our family is head-over-heels for Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books.

On one particular bedtime reading of On the Banks of Plum Creek, I was blown away by the parenting/teaching genius of her father, Charles Ingalls, whom she refers to as "Pa".

Here is the brief exchange between Pa and Laura that speaks to me. Can you spot what he's doing most brilliantly? I count five mentoring gems, all of which I unpack below. (For an indirect hint, I'm also doing some of them with my eldest daughter, in the picture above.)

In this scene, Laura just learned that Pa had to trade their horses away for cattle:

"Oh, Pa," she said, and there was a tremble in her voice. "I don't think I like cattle– much."

Pa took her hand and comforted it in his big one. He said, "We must do the best we can, Laura, and not grumble. What must be done is best done cheerfully. And some day we will have horses again."

"When, Pa?" she asked him. 

"When we raise our first crop of wheat."

Pa's wisdom shines through in this exchange. Here are four values that immediately jump out:

Resilience, in the sense that setbacks inevitably occur in the present, but we can bounce back from them in the future.

Acknowledgement, in the sense that he didn't gloss over her feelings. He expressed care. I especially like the image of his large hand affectionately holding her small one.

Positivity, in the sense that sooner or later, kids are confronted with "double-whammy" life tasks: those that are both undesirable AND necessary. When those responsibilities present themselves, doing them from a cheerful place is the way. I especially enjoyed how one reader from this mailing list posting pointed out how he chose the words, "is best" over "should." Pa is the consummate modeler and teacher.

And hope, in the sense that we can choose to focus on what is bringing us down now. Or we can choose to set our focus on achieving goals that'll bring light and joy to our circumstances later.

I love all these. Now I want to comment on what I believe to be the most powerful approach that Pa uses. It's a value that I've instinctively done with my kids, and one that I didn't know to explore in more depth as a younger teacher. What I'm talking about is inclusivity.

I looked up the definitions of both "inclusivity" and "inclusiveness," and they're pretty much the same. It is, "the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized." The definition goes on to include different groups such as racial/minority groups, and the disabled.

Then I had a revelation in reading this definition. Modern societies have been slowly shifting towards including historically marginalized groups. Yet at the same time, these same future-forward societies (such as ours) have been shifting away from including our very own kids. We're just not engaging them in ways we used to.

I saw this firsthand recently in Singapore. It's a very modern city, and after the sometimes frenetic pace of Bali for several weeks, we were all in the mood for a nice sushi meal. We found a really cool place – informal, with the semi-raucous din of conversations in multiple languages swirling around the room. Here we are:

Robert Ahdoot of Yay Math teaches from a place of love and connection.
Notice anything, energetically?

We sat next to what appeared to be a very well-to-do family. The entire time, both their daughters were glued to devices. Also you can see dad's body energy faces away from them. It's a scene I've grown accustomed to. But I don't accept its new normalcy.

My observations are not meant in judgment. No one can know the in's and out's of people's family or classroom dynamics. At the same time, I can't deny my conviction that universal human truths exist. One of those values is that during meals, we engage each other. We include each other.

Which brings us back to Pa and Laura. He includes her in the family's goals. Her goal is to have horses, and his goal is to raise crops. By committing to her that they'll have horses again once they raise their first crops, now each person's individual goals merge into a single and unified family goal. This is so beautiful to me.

I wonder, now when Pa asks for Laura's help with the crops, or even with something else to free Pa to tend to the crops, what will Laura's demeanor be? If she truly wants those horses, she'll contribute. Should she withdraw from helping though, and if the crop falters and they can't get horses as a result, she'll know that she's partially responsible. By including her in the overall vision, Pa makes her a partner.

This happened on the way to the Singapore airport, at the very top of this message. We explained to our girls that we had three flights ahead of us. We explained that we were going to the airport for early check-in, because there is a sensational, kid-friendly mall attached to it, where we could frolic and eat.

During all travel days, we explain what the immediate process will entail. For example, "we're in this line now to drop the bags off. Then, we're going through security, where they'll check our stuff for dangerous things. Then, there's a mirror maze in the mall... are you ready for that?!" Thus in their mental map, they can foresee flights, lines, security, fun. Then of course, movies and such during long flights.

I'm just saying that kids love to be included. The image above is of three local girls helping us build our beach sand pool, a few days ago in Crete. We didn't talk, due to the language barrier. But they were chatting and laughing it up with each other, and all of us were digging away. It was really special.

Several years ago as a younger teacher, I was aghast at myself when I realized that my students usually walked into class having no idea what the day's plan was. I gave them no explanation or itinerary, just my implicit expectation that they'll just "get with" whatever program I had in my mind.

Then, I learned of the "write-the-expectations-of-the-day-on-the-board" strategy. From that day on, I watched students walk in and immediately look to the board for that data, to calibrate their minds to what the day would entail. They were completely in the dark before, thus it was no wonder that they'd get squirrelly sometimes. To them, they were just filling in unoccupied class time.

This is our mission, to include kids and students within our programming. To create buy-in. They want to feel agency towards their lives. By agency I mean that they have a direct hand in shaping their path. Our job is to frame that sense of agency for them, and within that frame, give them latitude to make certain choices.

To a little kid, "Do you want to brush teeth first, or read stories first?"

To students in the class, "Does anyone have ideas that can help us be successful for this upcoming unit?"

To an older kid, "We can't leave for this trip until the following things get done with the house/car/project/your room. Which of these tasks can you take on?"

Pa includes Laura in their shared pursuits, and we can include kids in ours. To explore this concept deeper, to include them really means to respect them. Offering kids such overt respect signals them to step up and align their actions accordingly. Let's give them no doubt that they matter.

Warmly yours, Robert

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