Throughout time, the idea of childhood has constantly changed. In Greek times, children were sent to learn how to be soldiers at the age of eighteen in order to fight for their city. The concept of childhood also changes depending on geographical location. In the country of Israel, children are still sent to the army at young ages to fight for their homeland. However, in today’s western modern society, most parents choose to keep their children sheltered from the terrors of war. Adults will even make sure their children are only exposed to aspects of culture that are considered to be age appropriate; this ensure that their children remain within the confines of the parent’s perception of childhood. While this is frequently the case, it is actually beneficial for the child to be so sheltered based on their parents beliefs? While many psychologists have strong opinions on this question, one could argue that it is important to allow children to access certain things that are not “age appropriate” in order to gain early exposure to adult concepts.
One place where this concept of sheltering children becomes apparent is in children’s literature. Texts are frequently filled with controversial concepts that may not be considered suitable for children. After the publication of the children’s picture book Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, many questions arose in regards to determining which topics should be touched upon when reading a child a story before bed. The book has been considered by many adult readers to be scary and disturbing. Some reviewers even go as far as to say that the morals that are taught by the book are inappropriate and promotes bad behavior. Is this truly the case or are these descriptions solely attempts to shelter children from something that could potentially scare them and/or teach them bad behavioral practices? This paper will answer three very important questions which address these issues:
- Why is sheltering children important to adults?
- Are adult’s views on children’s literature affected by their desire to sensor information for their children?
- Should children be sheltered from texts like Where The Wild Things Are?
By looking at a text like Where The Wild Things Are, which has been criticized for its content and message, the answer to the questions will become evident.
To begin to answer the first question, it is be important to look at how the length of childhood has change throughout time. The duration of childhood has consistently grown throughout history. In earlier times, children were forced to make the transition from child to adult as soon as they were able to fend for themselves. Boys were sent to work as soon as their bodies could handle hard labor and girls were wed as soon as they were able to bare children. As time went on, children were able to enjoy childhood for a longer duration of time and were not forced into adulthood. As the length of childhood continued to grow, there was a radicle shift in how adults viewed children. In his analysis of Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, Peter Hunt describes how adults view the ideal child. In his writings, Hunt explains how some may think that Alice In Wonderland could be a good children’s book because it is appropriate for what they believe is the ideal child:
because the ‘Alice’ books are obviously, manifestly, ‘children’s books’ they will be suitable for children who are what the adults wish the children ideally to be: innocent (and possibly ignorant), charming, playful, harmless, unfrightening, sexless, nonviolent, and religiously correct (Hunt 42).
Here, Hunt creates a list of all the traits that he believes should constitute a child appropriate story. If this list is truly how what adults believe what childhood should consist of, it creates an extremely unstable and almost impossible reality for children. Today’s western modern world is full of easy to access information, which could easily corrupt the idea of childhood based off of Hunts list of ideals. If a child comes across the very thing that their parents have trying to keep them from, the sheer shock could very easily have a significant negative AFFECT on their future. Therefore, society formed a compulsion to protect and shelter its youth, attempting to set a sort of standard for what concepts are appropriate for children.
Because of this desire for children to retain these traits of the ideal child, adults have become more critical of what children have access to. Where The Wild Things Are, although a classic children’s picture book, began to be criticized for its content, message, and frightening nature. Wild Things begins with the main character Max, a young boy, fooling around in his house like a typical child. While misbehaving, Max yells at his mother shouting, “I’LL EAT YOU UP” (Sendak). Due to Max’s disrespect to his mother, he is sent to his room without dinner. This part of the book is one place that adult reviewers seemed to take issue with. When reviewing the book on Amazon.com, one critic described the book by saying, “Poor Max – he is a normal child who melts down once in a while but then is unfairly punished for his age-appropriate behavior. It is unhealthy to give our children the message that being upset is equitant to being naughty and bad” (Why Punish Children). Here, this reviewer believes that the message being presented by Wild Things could potentially teach his/her child that even raw emotion can lead to punishment. Although this is a more mature ideal, is this really something that children should not be exposed to early? This concept could potentially teach a child the important lesson of acknowledging and thus controlling one’s emotions, which would be extremely beneficial to learn at an early stage in life. Due to this parent’s desire to shelter his/her child, Wild Things may not be able to teach this valuable lesson.
Another place where Wild Things received criticism is in its illustrations. While in his room for being punished, a forest grows and Max is suddenly transported to a land inhabited by giant, wild, terrible monsters. While there he becomes the King of the Wild Things and makes decries which force the inhabitants of the new land to fool around with him. Here, adults again take issue due to its scary and disturbing nature. Throughout his time on the island of the Wild Things, Sendak presents the reader with many illustrations as to what Max’s journey looks like. Some of the pictures include:
Figures 1-3. Each figure is a screenshot taken from Where The Wild Things Are and depicts different shots of the wild things from Max’s journey (Sendak).
Each of these pictures depicts show a potentially scary image taken from Max’s journey to the wild thing land. In the picture on the far left, Max faces a horned and winged dragon. Max can even be seen as having the facial expression of fear. In the other two pictures, the inhabitants of the Wild Thing land are seen with terrifying and chilling expressions. Sendak even goes as far as drawing each monster’s set of eyebrows facing inward to give them an expression of anger. One reader review from Amazon.com described these pictures and others like it by saying, “Its about monsters for crying out loud! Why on earth would you want to plant the idea of fear and worry with your child just before bedtime? I remember being terrified of this book when I was a child. I will not read it with my kids” (M’s Mommy). Again, this is another example of adults trying to shelter their children from things that could disrupt their innocent and unfrightening nature. However, is exposing children to these potentially scary illustrations harmful? If children are never exposed to the concepts that Wild Things and other criticized children’s books pose, how will they be prepared when they face something that is scary and a part of their reality? How will a child know how to control his/her emotions in a stressful situation? Although sheltering children may keep the idea of the ideal child in tact, it could be potentially harmful to children by depriving them of the benefit of understanding these concepts early on.
On example of a way Wild Things could be beneficial for children is by exposing them to the outside world. In her analysis of Wild Things, Jennifer Shaddock writer of “Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness”, she explains, “Wild Things are ever-present in the domestic world” (Shaddock). Where The Wild Things Are is a perfect model for which children could learn lessons without actually experiencing the world’s real life wild things. Real life wild things could be dangerous. Reading Sendak’s classic could provide children with a safe and early exposure to this concept. A child could pick up, read and learn this lesson without the dangers of going out into the real world and trying to experience this first hand.
Another reason why children should not be sheltered from texts like Wild Things is because it teaches many critical thinking skills. In her analysis of Wild Things, Ann Moseley writer of “The Journey Through the “Space in the Text” to Where the Wild Things Are”, she explains the text in terms of four levels: “textual, physical, psychological, and mythic” (Moseley). Throughout his article, he discovers a deeper meaning of Wild Things using Sendak’s use of white space, Max’s psyche, and even ancient myths. Although a child may not actually be able to pick up on all of these complicated themes just as Moseley does, a child may be able to create his/her own interpretations of the text. This is an extremely important skill for a child to learn and if they were never given the text to begin with, this learning process would never be possible.
Overall, sheltering children seems to be a significant part of the culture of modern day western society however, as shown through the examples presented in this paper, doing so may not always be best for children. Sometimes, early exposure to adult concepts in the form of literature can help a child learn about the world without exposing them to danger. In conclusion, children have a lot to learn from texts like Where The Wild Things Are and adults should begin to realize the potential benefits that children could gain from reading them.
M’s Mommy. “A Dar, Scary Book for Little Kids.” Rev. of Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak,. Amazon.com. 4 Nov 1999. Web. 14 June 2014
Moseley, Ann. “The Journey Through the “Space in the Text” to Where the Wild Things Are.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (1986): 96-101. Project MUSE. Web. 27 May 2012.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. Print.
Shaddock, Jennifer. “Where the Wild Things Are: Sendak’s Journey into the Heart of Darkness.” Children’s Literature Association, 1997. Web. 27 May 2014.
“Why Punish Children for Normal Behavior?” Rev. of Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Amazon.com. 1 May 2012. Web. 14 June 2014