I discovered Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are in a stack of other stories as a young reader, right before I started first grade. We were moving from Sewanee, Tennessee to Chattanooga, and in the chaos of packing, I found a quiet corner and got lost in some familiar picture books. Tucked in the pile was Sendak’s 338 word story, which I didn’t recognize, and whose illustrations I found disturbing and attractive at the same time. The main character, Max, wore footy pajamas like I did, and he got very mad and sent to his room, which was scary and familiar, too. The wild things seemed like a secret that was being revealed, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but I couldn’t put the book down.
Vance Wilson, longtime headmaster of a boy’s school in Washington, DC, wrote an essay about Max, which he read last night at Redeemer, and old feelings came flooding back. How do we as teachers and as parents understand this archetypal story? “How do we walk with our wild things, with their slowly developing prefrontal lobes and their preference for fast cars over faces, with boys who learn in different ways from girls but are who they are? How do we walk with them so that when given a choice, as Max is, of being king of the wild things or being loved best of all, our sons (and daughters) choose love?”
Simple stuff: Look a child in the eye and call him or her by name. Give them not a wild day, but a structured day in which wildness is scheduled. “Call his name each hour. ‘Solve this problem, Max. Translate this passage; move your adverb next to the word it modifies, Max. I appreciate your telling the truth, Max. Show up on time. Do not hit in here, Wild Thing; there is plenty of time for rumpuses on the playing field.’ At home Max will explode—slam the door, speak disrespectfully, and beat on a sibling. Give him some time, some space, but call him out. ‘Max, set the table. Let’s see your homework. Leave your little sister alone…’”
Fill your children’s lives with stories and with rituals. “’Sit in chapel, Max, listen to the silence, sing, and reflect on what your classmates say. Sit down to lunch with us…’ Tell him so many family stories and take him to so many family events that he rolls his eyes constantly… In your family stories, forget the morals; tell the stories.” If the story is worth telling, they will remember it. Make them feel part of the tribe.”
Finally, model. Children learn from how we live our lives in front of them. Try to be empathetic, challenging, fair, positive, strict, and human.
I’ve been struck over the last few weeks how much the people I know are talking about moral action. “How can I make a difference,” was asked by a young mother returning to the work force, a 90-year-old widow, an investment banker in mid-life, and a counselor who spent 32-years behind bars. “How can I shape policy or behavior or my own attitude,” asked an old friend. “How can I wake my children up from feeling entitled to the advantages we’ve worked so hard to provide,” a parent wondered aloud, “and help them discover responsibility, but not overwhelm them?”
Simple stuff: Listen. Respect differences. Honor other’s experience and your own. Give each other space and time, but call a person out if she crosses a line. Let yourself be criticized. Look people in the eye and say their name. Get to know each other. Learn your family stories, and the stories of some great literature, and the stories of history, and the stories of the Bible. Forget the morals, just know the stories, and the important parts will stick. Eat meals together regularly with family or close friends. Widen your circle of intimacy. Make sure everyone feels part of the tribe. Seek to understand more than to be understood. Learn from your mistakes; everybody makes them. Don’t deny your wildness, but invite it to serve the common good. Choose love.