Maurice Sendak on teaching resilience

World’s beloved children’s book writer Maurice Sendak teaches us how our innocent experience shapes the ability to face life’s uncertainties. One of his most well known books, Where the Wild Things Are, is about a boy named Max who acts wildly then sent to bed by his mother calling him “wild thing!”.

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew-
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max and he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.

When he reaches where the wild things are, he finds the perfect place for the rumpus. He says, “let the wild rumpus start!”

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After a while, Max starts to miss the place where someone loved him the best of all. He returns home, and finds warm meal in his bedroom. In an interview on PBS, Sendak expresses how we should look from the perspective of children and accept the very way they express instead of projecting adult’s perspective;

we’re animals, we’re violent, we’re criminal, we’re not so far away from the gorillas and the Apes, those beautiful creatures. So of course I know we’re supposed to be civilized, we’re supposed to go to work every day, we’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents. Of all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do and if I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are impolitely, lovingly, they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what the right way is. And as it turns out sometimes the so-called right way is utterly the wrong way. What a monstrous confusion!

After the book was first published in 1963, the criticism surged against the story of Max. The story where Max shouts “I’ll eat you up!” at his mother who later leaves food for him without punishment was thought to be harmful example to set for children.

Indeed, our conventional teaching guides us to show children the perfect images of a family, parents, and the world. The images of kindness, loving parents or good citizen make us believe that no other qualities are allowed in that perfect images. Yet, we all experience the derailment in the process of pursuing them. Then we let ourselves down, as we learned that the ugliness doesn’t belong to those perfect life models we were shown. Sendak shares his memories about his mother who was far from the perfect that he imagined all mothers to be.

Your mom is supposed to be perfect. She should be there for you, love you, kiss you. Every movie we ever saw, Claudette Colbert hugging her children. We know what it should be like. And it wasn’t and we had no sympathy at all.

No good mother and no good child is perfect, as perfect as they should be. The should-be models are our mere desire to teach the good things that will override the bad outcomes of life. Throughout time, our society has put “good” as the default value while treating “bad” as a temporal event that was not supposed to happen in the first place. This projection of adult’s desire for good onto children, however, rejects and isolates those who are casually exposed to bad things; their parents may yell at them instead of loving them; their friends ignore them at school all of a sudden; parents divorce. How can anyone think of ways to deal with those events if we were taught that only good things exist? Then how should they read and process their strong feeling if there is no book that tells, “it all happens to everyone”? Sendak emphasises the importance of knowing that bad things exist and that no one has to go through them alone.

They have to know it’s possible things are bad. But they are surrounded by people who love them and will protect them. But cannot hide the fact that there is something bad.

Before we deal with the different unfoldings of life, whether good or painful, we naturally learns how to deal with our own feelings and emotions. What Sendak shows is that through taming his own wildness, a child can be more resilient with the help of love and protection from his loving family.

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An anthropology novice with passion for small things. A development worker in a world of imponderabilia.

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