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How the Wild Things Tame Themselves

Where the Wild Things Are is a timeless classic that children adore. But, in recent years, Maurice Sendak’s tale about a rambunctious boy being sent to his room has hit a national nerve and sparks heated debates about how to raise kids.

As the story goes, Max’s mom banishes him to his room without supper for misbehaving. Experts and parents are hotly debating this part of the story, and many think it’s draconian. Many think its abandonment, cruel to withhold food, and believe its better to stay alongside a young child and talk it out. In my work as a child psychologist with over 20 years experience, Max’s mother gets it right. She knows that engaging Max endlessly with reminders, yelling, coddling, or lecturing is not only fruitless, but will make things worse. When parents come to me at their wits end, I’ve found that a simple time-away in one’s room really improves the household. For years, I’ve recommended Sendak’s book to guide parents through these trying times.

As with Max, young boys learn best from real-life experience. They don’t respond well to long verbal exchanges. They rarely improve their behavior only because you tell them. While this is true for many girls, research shows that girls don’t get themselves into these disciplinary situations as often. Girls have less motor activity. They attend better to rules. They make better eye contact, use language more effectively, and are more likely to think before they act out their frustrations. In short, they aren’t seen as hyperactive or having deficits of attention nearly as often.

In today’s climate of fast diagnosing, Max might be a candidate for ADHD. Rather than turning to psychiatric labels, and the medications that usually follow, Max’s mother relies on this effective yet simple behavior parenting technique. What happens to Max while he’s banished in his room? No doubt he gets angry. He might scream and cry. He might wish he had a different family and a less rule-bound mom. In the safety of his quiet room, Max uses his imagination like a tool. With it he constructs a boat that carries him far away from his mom, his family, and all the rules young kids are forced to obey. Meanwhile, his mom respects his time-away. She doesn’t interrupt his voyage by checking in or telling him how he should feel or what he should think. She respects his ability to make the journey himself. This conveys confidence in Max that he can work through the problem himself. Only he can pull back his wildness. He wants to get back to his family, but first he’ll need to make some changes.

Sendak’s story beautifully illustrates how a child’s play and imagination is the catalyst for cognitive growth. Max’s boat reaches a place where other Wild Things live. They carry on, roar, swing from trees, and gnash their terrible teeth. The Wild Things, (mostly boys by the look of them), will soon learn the lessons that Max has learned from his mother. You can’t act too wild. There’s a time and place for everything. There are limits, and consequences for your behaviors. In Max’s fantasy he uses pretend play to channel his wild urges. Next, he models his mother and pretends to be a parent. He banishes the Wild Things to their bedroom without supper. He’s now powerful and in control. He uses that power on improving himself.  Now he’s ready to go home.

It’s the smell of food that lures Max back to reality. He returns to his bedroom, calmer and better behaved, having made the journey on his own. His supper is waiting for him and he knows he’s loved.


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