Were you a Wild Thing as a child? Did you resist rules? Question authority? Did you get in trouble?
In Maurice Sendak’s beloved titan of picture books, Where the Wild Things Are, we see an angry young Max openly defy his mother after he has been creating chaos all day. Following his offense, he is sent to his bedroom for a timeout, where he readily falls into a dream of visiting a far-away land full of giant lumbering monsters — Wild Things — who he tames, parties with, and ultimately disappoints when he departs as homesickness beckons. Upon awakening, a spent Max finds a warm dinner has been brought to his room.
I read this story to the students on the first day of my Guidance of the Young Child class this semester at the community college where I work. I read children’s stories once a week that reflect the content we’re exploring. Where the Wild Things Are is the kind of story that captures the struggles young children undergo when they are trying to figure out how to be in the world.
Students taking this class are studying to be teachers of very young children. We talk at length about the importance of understanding typical development in order to have appropriate expectations of them. This principle also implies a built-in respect for children and how they navigate their world, and a realization that adults can (and should) be there to support them on that path.
Part of this process includes re-thinking one’s ideas about children’s behavior — their unproductive behavior, especially, since that is what most frequently commands our attention. We can be confounded and exhausted by children’s conflicts; in an early childhood setting they are a daily experience.
A major intersection we reach early in the semester, then, is this understanding of behavior and development, and how best to respond. Right away we begin discussing the difference between misbehavior and mistaken behavior (per Daniel Gartrell) in children. This becomes the foundation for everything that will follow. Misbehavior is a perspective adults hold that children purposely act in unproductive, trouble-causing ways — for which they should be punished. Mistaken behavior is a perspective that children, in their effort to begin to understand themselves and interact effectively with others, will inevitably make mistakes in the process. This perspective also draws on brain research that reveals children’s newly-emerging abilities to manage feelings and social interactions.
The misbehavior perspective supports a punishment response. In this instance, children’s behavior is controlled through fear and stresses what not to do; children “behave” or hide their mistakes to avoid a penalty or humiliation. The New International Dictionary of the English Language (1989) defines “punishment” as “any ill suffered in consequence of wrongdoing.” Its definition of “punish” is “to subject (a person) to pain, confinement, or other penalty for a crime or fault.”
When I asked students to write about a childhood memory of getting in trouble, over half of them reported being struck or slapped for behaviors ranging from imitating someone to talking back. While this was not necessarily surprising, it was clear that the memories were still vivid for them even now. They also reported feeling guilty, hurt, or embarrassed.
The mistaken behavior perspective supports an adult response that seeks to understand the reasons a child behaves in a particular way, to choose an appropriate way to step in, and most importantly — to help the child find a way to resolve the conflict (Gartrell). Therein lies the messy path to self-understanding. It’s not simple and it’s not always pretty. But when the adult responds from the angle that the child is wrestling with something, and is struggling and upset in the process, a trusting relationship can be built, (s)he can begin developing those emotional intelligence skills that are so critical to her long-term future. In previous essays I’ve note that early childhood teachers believe that all behavior is meaningful, and reflects children’s needs. They don’t have the same kinds of coping tools at their disposal as we do as adults, so it’s our role to be around to model, support, and be in their corner. I’m not suggesting this is always a walk in the park. It can be exhausting.
In Where the Wild Things Are, Max’s mother is exhausted. She’s had it with him. He’s been racing all over the house, terrorizing the family dog, running with a fork … no wonder she’s angry.
Here is where Sendak shares such an insightful take on young children. While his own troubled childhood is well documented, and he spoke candidly about its influence on the story, he clearly acknowledges and respects children’s dark side. Pretty revolutionary for 1963, when the book was published.
Sendak’s work acknowledges the shadow, that Jungian concept of personality representing the unconscious part of the self we’d prefer to keep under wraps, given that it contains largely negative and undesirable elements. It’s the seat of instinct. For a young child, it’s one major aspect of the tussle that characterizes the first steps to self-understanding and, by extension, moral development.
Teachers and anyone who cares for young children might consider a juxtaposition of the these ideas: mistaken behavior, Jung’s concept of the shadow, and Sendak’s Wild Thing — his acknowledgement of children’s noble endeavor to live with clashing emotions and what is sometimes a rather confusing or scary world.
Sendak had deep respect for young children’s ability to do this work on selfhood: From their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. (Goodreads.com)
But Sendak often chided adults for under-estimating children as well, suggesting that soft-pedaled stories of happy endings and good times are actually more protective of our own self-interest: Grown-ups desperately need to feel safe, and then they project onto the kids. But what none of use seem to realize is how smart kids are. They don’t like what we write for them, what we dish up for them, because it’s vapid, so they’ll go for the hard words, they’ll go for the hard concepts, they’ll go for the stuff where they can learn something. Not didactic things, but passionate things. (Goodreads.com)
Let’s hear it for fantasy play and fairy tales. Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow …” He also said that the shadow was the source of potential creativity and even unrealized potential — so it’s not all bad, right? If we acknowledge that part of our selves, then we must do so for children, too.
If you’re not familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, or you’ve not read it for a while and want to get re-connected with this exquisite story, consider grabbing a copy from the public library. I’ll bet every copy is worn from reading and-re-reading.
So, were you a Wild Thing?
Are you still?