Incensed that parents are complaining that Where the Wild Things Are is too frightening for children, Maurice Sendak responded to a reporter's query thusly:
"I would tell them to go to hell," Sendak said. And if children can't handle the story, they should "go home," he added. "Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."
And, while his words are harsh, I think his point is valid.
I've been thinking on this for a while now. This semester, I'm teaching a course on "writing about nature," and discovered that of the 18 suburban and urban college students in my class, only five of them have ever been camping. Even fewer of them have been in "wilderness."
I was prompted to ask the question after reading Michael Chabon's essay Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood.
He begins: When I was growing up, our house backed onto woods, a thin two-acre remnant of a once-mighty wilderness. This was in a Maryland city where the enlightened planners had provided a number of such lingering swaths of green. They were tame as can be, our woods, and yet at night they still filled with unfathomable shadows. In the winter they lay deep in snow and seemed to absorb, to swallow whole, all the ordinary noises of your body and your world. Scary things could still be imagined to take place in those woods. It was the place into which the bad boys fled after they egged your windows on Halloween and left your pumpkins pulped in the driveway. There were no Indians in those woods, but there had been once. We learned about them in school. Patuxent Indians, they'd been called. Swift, straight-shooting, silent as deer. Gone but for their lovely place names: Patapsco, Wicomico, Patuxent.
For Chabon, something has been lost for our children. We've stripped them of the right to wander, to explore, to get themselves into scrapes and figure out how to get themselves out, to climb trees, to get dirty.
Chabon says it's irrational fear. Oh, I can hear some of you thinking: Do you know how many children are abducted and killed by strangers each year?
If one were to rely solely on cable news, I would imagine the answer to be in the hundreds, if not thousands.
But the primary reason for this curtailing of adventure, this closing off of Wilderness, is the increased anxiety we all feel over the abduction of children by strangers; we fear the wolves in the Wilderness. This is not a rational fear; in 1999, for example, according to the Justice Department, the number of abductions by strangers in the United States was 115. Such crimes have always occurred at about the same rate; being a child is exactly no more and no less dangerous than it ever was. What has changed is that the horror is so much better known. At times it seems as if parents are being deliberately encouraged to fear for their children's lives, though only a cynic would suggest there was money to be made in doing so.
And yet, even when my children were small, I was afraid to let them out of my sight, afraid that wandering away might mean that they would be carried off, never to be seen again. Certainly there were enough examples of it on television. I still remember the chilling store film of the two boys who took a four-year old out of a store, cruelly beat him to death, and left him on railroad tracks.
Something changed for me, though, when I began to realize that my children were not going to drown, get kidnapped, hit by a car, struck by lightning, just because they were out playing with their friends. For me, I think it was about the same time I stopped being an active addict, when I gave up the idea that I was in control of everything. I could not control what was going to happen to my children. Oh yes, of course, I could take care of them, but smothering them was not the way to teach them to live.
When I was a child, the only thing forbidden to me was playing in the creek. I never did understand that stricture. The only thing I knew was that if I came home with wet pants from playing in its filthy waters, I was guaranteed a spanking. But climbing trees? No problem. Running around the woods with my friends? No problem. Walking to a friend's house? Expected--there would be no car rides offered. "Go out and get some fresh air," I was told, again and again.
But now, as Chabon points out, we make playdates for our kids. We structure their time. We give them cell phones so we always know where they are.
The rule in my house was, be home in time for dinner. And, after dinner, be home by dark.
I wonder what we would think of parents who gave their children these freedoms now?
The effect of these strictures have been brought home to me by the reading of my students' essays. They all talk about parents who were frantic for their safety. They couldn't be off their block. They couldn't leave their driveways. If they went to a friend's house, they had to be driven, and their parents had to know where they were at all times.
Chabon says that children lack imagination as a consequence of that. And with that, I disagree. If students lack intellectual curiosity (and a percentage of them do), first of all, I would argue that it has always been thus. Some people are just not curious about the world. But my students wrote about the various ways they had of creating fantasy worlds where they could be safe and wander freely. Imaginary friends. Playing with action figures and dolls and creating games. Reading. Always reading.
Truthfully, reading was my escape, too. I loved a rainy day when I was not expected to be out with my friends. What could be better than to be engrossed in a book, hot chocolate by my side, legs curled up underneath me, blanket on my lap?
And I read books that frightened me. The only book that my parents ever took away from me was The Godfather. I was 12. They thought it age-inappropriate, and it was the only book I ever remember them censoring. The lesson I took from that? If I was going to read something that risque, better to do it secretly. My bet is that most kids have learned that one on their own.
So, when parental fears interfere in the creation of imagination, it's no wonder that writers like Sendak, who, like Roald Dahl knew that being a child was not all butterflies and buttercups, want to tell parents to go to hell.
The thing that frightened me about Where the Wild Things Are when I was a child was not the adventure. It was the initial getting into trouble. I hated being yelled at. Hated being sent to my room. Hated the feeling of having disappointed my parents.
But, once I had gotten over that feeling, then I loved being in my room. My room was where my books were. And my books were freedom.
Children are not stupid. Yes, of course, parents should make decisions about whether their child is too sensitive for the material in Where the Wild Things Are. But, like parents who, because they are offended by something their kid is reading and therefore want to ban the book from the school library, parents who want to stop other children from seeing a movie because they think it's too scary need to quit interfering.
Children's imaginations can conjure up much more frightening things than a land of beasts. To read my students' essays is to learn that some of them, banned from leaving their own yards, had monsters at home to contend with. Who needs a stranger to hurt you when your parent is a monster?
Oh? And the idea for the wild things? Straight out of Sendak's childhood. As he explains:
He based the monsters of Where the Wild Things Are on relatives who visited his family home as a child, speaking practically no English. "They grabbed you and twisted your face, and they thought that was an affectionate thing to do," he said. "And I knew that my mother's cooking was pretty terrible, and it also took forever, and there was every possibility that they would eat me, or my sister or my brother. We really had a wicked fantasy that they were capable of that. We couldn't taste any worse than what she was preparing. So that's who the Wild Things are. They're foreigners, lost in America, without a language. And children who are petrified of them, and don't understand that these gestures, these twistings of flesh, are meant to be affectionate."
Kids sort things out. We can help them make good decisions. We can give them good boundaries. But can we please stop robbing them of that delicious ability to wander off, responsibility-free, for a few hours, to see what there is to see?