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Why Praise Maurice Sendak When He Harmed Children and Misled Parents?

24 Jun

Put Bad Dreams to Rest!

There is no question that Maurice Sendak had an uncompromising view of children and childhood, but not because, as so many are asserting, it was the “courageous,” “true” or “real” view. When he wrote his signature book, Where the Wild Things Are, it was much more acceptable to send children to bed without dinner for “misbehaving.” Now, however, we realize that young children’s minds are very different than adult minds and that we should not punish children for behaving like children. Sendak’s charming illustrations do not compensate for the truly harmful message he sent to children and parents.
Max, the young protagonist in Where the Wild Things Are clearly needs attention or dinner or both, but he pursues his needs in a way that gets him the negative attention he has learned to mistake for caring. Sent to bed without dinner, he is left to cope by himself with his angry feelings, which he personifies as monsters. His parents do not help him to understand that his angry feelings are normal and not monstrous, so he joins up with the monsters and makes himself the King of them, that is, he accepts his parents’ misguided conclusion that he is a bad boy.
The hallmark of young children’s minds is that they cannot evaluate the care they get and they believe their parents are perfect. So if parents are punitive, as Max’s parents are, children confuse the unhappiness they are made to feel with happiness, and they develop an appetite for that misidentified unhappiness. Children who confuse unhappiness with happiness and are made to feel that angry feelings are monstrous grow up to need some form of unhappiness, which they create with self-sabotage.
Sendak’s negative view of children as antisocial and in need of harsh controls is corrosive and out of date. In fact, children are born loving their parents and wanting to be just like them. Imitation, powered by mirror neurons, is the most potent learning force there is. Children truly do as we do, not as we say. So the way to teach children compassion and generosity of spirit is to respond to their age-appropriate immaturity compassionately and generously.
A more contemporary approach to children’s angry feelings is to help children understand that hostile feelings, especially toward family members, are not deserving of punishment and deprivation, but are understandable, normal responses to inevitable daily frustrations. Children who are parented in this way will not be driven to externalize their anger in the form of monsters or other scary beings. Rather they will take pleasure in the knowledge that they can be angry and loved at the same time.
Maurice Sendak appeals to parents’ punitive impulses toward their children and to children’s guilt at their angry feelings, but we know now that there is a better way to create a society of compassionate adults.¬†FU4QSJNGPTKK