Most of us, at multiple times throughout the day if your toddler is like mine and likes to use items off her dinner plate as hair product, have looked at our child and thought, “Wild thing!”
I can’t say I’ve met a person who doesn’t like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and my kids are no exception. As Addy’s entered that charming stage of needing books read to her multiple times, in a row, immediately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with Max lately and have come to the realization that the real hero of the book is Max’s mom. Sure, she appears in no pictures and has only one speaking line, and true, the story’s charm is built around Max’s solo adventure. I have to argue though that Max’s mom is the heart of the story and without her, the book would not be the childhood classic it is today.
I want to be like Max’s mom.
Let’s start with the central premise of the story that Max wears a wolf suit. How much do you want to bet Max’s mom made it herself? I do not have visions of myself whipping off an adorable costume for my child on my sewing machine (even though I own one), but I know plenty of moms who could and do. And you have got to give Max’s mom, and women of her ilk, props.
She might, of course, be a teensy bit to blame for encouraging Max’s behavior by providing him with a wild animal costume. I think it’s important to note though that Max wasn’t sent to his room for putting a nail into the wall or for chasing his dog with a fork; he got in deep doodoo for talking back to his mom. If you’re like me, you’re too tired to chastise your child for minor infractions or even mildly major ones if you didn’t explicitly warn her against it. A couple of weeks ago, for instance, I warned my daughter and her friend not to go into the laundry room to drink bleach or play with the circular saw. I did not, however, warn them not to break a picture frame, not to pull my antique quilt off the wall, or not to jump off chairs in an attempt to crack their heads open. So when having worked their way through all such tricks they decided to conclude with pulling the entire contents of Penny’s dress up rack down on top of themselves, I held back fussing at them because I figured I hadn’t told them not to do all these things. But later when Penny tripped her baby sister, I ripped into her. I got into her face and really let her have it, partly because I’d told her to be careful with her sister and partly because I’d held back from yelling at her all the times before. I celebrate Max’s mom for being like the rest of us holding it together only to suddenly lose her cool; I love that Max got into trouble and that his punishment was probably a little extreme. It’s validating to see a mom hold the line against her wild thing.
I’d like to also give credit to Max’s mom for his creativity in growing a forest in his very own bedroom, making up a boat to sail in, and a world to reign over. Yes, he came up with all these things on his own, but surely his mother had been encouraging his creative play all along (see costume note above)? I see no signs in the book that Max’s mom considered dramatic play the work of the devil. Max’s bravery and leadership among the wild things is also commendable. This is a kid who’s been instilled with confidence and inner strength in his few short years. I like to think that we’re doing the same with our daughters, that if confronted with beasts rolling their terrible eyes and showing their terrible claws, they would subdue them calmly and then throw a great rumpus.
What I want most for my daughters though is to know that wherever they go, whatever trouble they get into that there is a place where someone loves them “best of all.” And I want them to want to be with us. Not that I want them to be with us all the time as they grow, mind you. In the last six months, Penny’s just begun having play dates at her friend’s house and each time K and I manage to arrange one of these afternoons for our daughters, we do a little happy dance (that could just be me actually…). Penny was one of those babies who couldn’t handle having unrelated adults look at her much less hold her or babysit her, so her willingness to go out into the world on her own in even this small fashion is a bit of victory. If I could project my desires into the future, I suppose what I really want is for my girls to be independent and homesick at the same time. Is that mean? Not sad enough that they can never leave, that they can never sail away to explore wild places, but enough to know that I did things right. That I created a home for them that they loved. My favorite image of Sendak’s book actually is the one of a crowned Max surrounded by his sleeping friends, resting his head somewhat mournfully on his fist. Having had his fun, having accomplished all he wanted to accomplish, he really just wants to go home to where he is loved. Home, he realizes, is not such a bad place after all.
Having set his mind on it, nothing can persuade Max to stay for more cheap thrills. His new friends do all they can to convince him to stay, going as far as to threaten to eat him, but Max is strong in the face of this peer pressure. What strength it takes for Max to give it all up, to sacrifice fun for meaning is perhaps the subject for another book. Watching Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen’s downward spiral in the last few weeks makes me want a magic pill to give my own kids; one that helps them to hold firm to their values in the face of pressure. I hope that they will grow to be like Max, to be strong when confronted by beasts, to “sail” away and in and out of years if need be to something real. I like to think that we parents do have some ability to help our kids grow in this way. It’d be nice to know Max’s mom’s secret…
The biggest “aaah” moment is clearly the last line of the book “and it was still hot.” Max’s mom, having sent him to bed without his supper has relented (perhaps she got to sip a nice glass of red wine with her own dinner) and brought Max something to eat. There could be no better ending to the book than this simple gesture of forgiveness, nourishment, and love. Every time I read it, I think, now why didn’t I think of that?! It’s not that I send my kids to bed without their supper, but I punish them all the time for a wide range of acts from drawing a tic tac toe grid on the couch to simply pounding on each other. And following each punishment I sit and talk about what happened. And talk. And talk some more. We talk about the event, what choices they might make differently next time, future punishments, their feelings, my feelings… blah blah blah. How much would we all hate this book if Max’s mom had come into his room to talk about his behavior and how everyone was feeling? I’m taking note and trying to do less talk and more show of my forgiveness these days.
Max’s appearance in the final image of the book is the ultimate testament to the awesomeness of his mom. We see Max looking somehow contrite and happy at the same time as he takes his wolf hood down. It seems that in coming home, in leaving his world of fantasy, he’s come back to himself too. I think parents really love Sendak’s book for moments like this: moments when we recognize our own kid on the page. Our children really are wild things roaring their terrible roars, showing their terrible claws, and someday all too soon rolling their terrible eyes at us. What Max’s mom teaches us is to not let our wild things run free, to not attempt to tame them either, but to, with love, keep bringing them home.
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