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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pearce

Charles Ingalls, Parentless Children, and Difficult Choices

Are we likely to face the struggles of life on the prairie?

Picture a covered wagon pulled by two horses at the top of a hill covered in wildflowers. In the seat are two people: a man and a woman. He smiles and holds the reins and she smoothes her hair and fixes her bonnet. Running down the hillside are three young children and a furry dog. One girl has long, blonde hair. Another has a red dress and braids. And the smallest one falls into the wildflowers as she runs. Is the scene bringing back a television memory?

In this TV show opening, Michael Landon and his Little House on the Prairie co-star Karen Grassle sit upon that wagon seat and pull into their town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The still-popular Little House series took inspiration from the life and times of the real Ingalls family who lived in the Midwest in the mid-to-late 19th century. And some of the problems faced by that family and the residents of Walnut Grove are similar to the problems we face today, about 145 years later. Especially when it comes to the care of the children.

Landon portrayed Charles Ingalls, affectionately known as “Pa” to his large family. Charles was well known throughout Walnut Grove as a man of integrity, fortitude, and faith. His family, friends, neighbors, and fellow farmers relied on him in times of stress, danger, and grief. He was always there for them. With a good head on his shoulders, he helped those around him face a multitude of struggles.

In one particular episode of the television show, a friend and fellow resident of Walnut Grove named Julia Sanderson went to Charles for help. She was ill and was informed by Doc Baker that she didn’t have long to live. Julia was a widow who lived on her land with her three young children: John, Carl, and Alicia. Although she was internally devastated by the bleak news, she put on a brave face for her children and the community.

Photo of the Real Charles and Caroline Ingalis

Julia sought out Charles for a favor; it was a matter of great importance and the request weighed heavily on Charles.

Without a husband to raise their young’uns and no relatives close by, Julia desperately needed a solid plan for her sons and daughter.

Within days, they would no longer have a mother nor a home. None of them was old enough to raise the other two. They couldn’t maintain the farm. The children desperately needed a guardian…a family…and would not be able to stay on the land once owned by their parents.

Charles agreed without hesitation to help Julia. The day came all too soon for the widow Sanderson to say goodbye. And as Charles began searching for a proper home for the orphans, he quickly realized the magnitude of the task before him.

“First time I really thought about it,” he tearfully told Caroline, his wife. “It’s not going to be easy to find a place for the children.”

Julia Sanderson (skillfully played by actress Patricia Neal) had no plan for her children, other than to have them placed in a loving home to be looked after. Her children would eventually be fine (and Charles, with a grand gesture from his buddy Mr. Edwards, fulfilled his promise). But what would have happened if the original solution Charles considered - which unfortunately separated the siblings permanently - had come to be? Would Julia’s final wishes have been realized? What did Charles know about the children and what they needed? Did Julia want them to be together or would separating them be alright?

Charles faced burdensome decisions. It might have been a simpler time back then; fewer considerations, less complications. But the core problem is one faced by real parents now. We wonder (and worry) about what will become of our precious children when we are gone or can no longer care for them. In the case of a child with special needs, those considerations and complications are significant. Charles and his friends would have faced enormous obstacles in placing a child with special needs in someone’s home, especially without explicit instructions on how to meet the child’s needs.

“Pa” struggled mightily with what to do for his friend Julia’s children.

In one pivotal scene from that episode, the eldest orphan, John, looks earnestly at Mr. Ingalls as the children are about to be separated and tells him that he knows Charles did his best to find them a good home. It is a heart-wrenching moment.

They wear brave faces but are torn up emotionally. Charles knew he was not doing right by them, but was also trying to abide by Julia’s wish to find them a home.

In moments where we as parents must face tough decisions that pertain to the future of our child or children, we hope that we are doing right by them. We parents want to ensure their safety, well-being, and lifelong happiness. We want the assurance that whoever manages the care of your child with special needs will continue what you have worked so hard to accomplish. Imagine if, in this fictional account, Julia Sanderson had had a plan ahead of time and it was communicated clearly and completely…if Charles Ingalls had been given detailed information on what to do and how to proceed…the struggle and heartache might have been eliminated.

Fictional stories are captivating as they remind us of our own very real lives. We learn from stories and characters to whom we relate. We think about how things were and how things will be. We extract life lessons from the exquisite tribulations we bear witness to, whether they are real or fictional.

The characters of Julia Sanderson and Charles Ingalls faced something back in the mid-1800s that parents before and since then struggle with. Quite honestly, the decisions about the future care of a child are the most crucial decisions a parent will make. If Julia had the chance to prepare…had she been able to create something of value for her soon-to-be children’s guardians…maybe she would not have been so desperate.

If Charles had a clear sense of his friend’s wishes…if he had known exactly what she intended for her children and what the needs were, maybe he would not have faced such personal turmoil in trying to help a friend. In a similar circumstance, what would you do?

Modern-day parents have opportunities and tools available to them like never before when it comes to planning for their children. We are definitely not like the pioneer folk who came long before us, relying on glass bottles of soot ink to write important messages or hot wax to seal important documents. No mercantile or traveling salesperson of days-gone-by would have had access to the amazingly effective planning tools available to us now!

Are some still lost in that prairie though? Are there parents of special needs children out there without a real plan for that inevitable day when they will no longer be here to care for their children? Sadly, it seems that many parents are without such a plan.

There's no need to simply hope that others will do the right thing for your child. With the positive narratives offered through Vest Life, you can now build a beautiful "Little House on the Prairie" to protect positive outcomes for your child's lifetime well-being. Everyone could use a friend like Charles Ingalls or Mr. Edwards in their life.

Check out Vest and discover how you can gain true support for crucial decisions pertaining to your child.


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