Maurice Sendak In the Age of Overprotective Parenting

Now that Maurice Sendak has passed away, who will scare our children?

The question may sound facetious, but is wholeheartedly meant and perhaps all the more so with Mother’s Day tomorrow, Sunday, May 13. In Sendak’s books, mothers get mad at their (misbehaving) children and are sometimes just not around.

These can be the stuff of childhood bad dreams. The New York Times‘s obituary of Sendak, who died May 8 at the age of 83, indeed dubbed him the “author of splendid nightmares.” In a 1993 NPR interview, Sendak  described “children surviving childhood” as his “obsessive theme” and “life’s concern.” While the children in his books undergo terrifying experiences (kidnapping, being baked into a cake), amid terrifying, monstrous creatures (who are sometimes, as in Where the Wild Things Are, real monsters), Sendak’s young characters return home and even to a “still hot” dinner made by the mother they had rebelled against. They are ingenious, turning bread dough into airplanes. Like Jennie, the terrier who runs away from her comfortable home knowing that “there must be more to life,” they yearn for adventure beyond the snug, safe boundary of their front door.

Sendak’s work is certainly closer to the original Grimms’ fairy tales than the sanitized versions offered by the likes of Disney. His stories capture the cruelty, arbitrariness and terror of the world for children without candy-colored animations accompanied by upbeat melodies and friendly mice. Consequently, librarians (the New York Times notes) have been known to nervously draw diapers over the naked hero of In the Night Kitchen, Mickey. What kind of bad mother sends her little boy to bed without feeding him? Can children handle reading about how the pig Bumble-Ardy is orphaned? (His parents become, um, pork.)

“I’m Really Rosie” and The Juniper Tree

Growing up, I particularly loved the cartoon of Really Rosie, which was based on Sendak’s 1960 The Sign on Rosie’s Door. I read, reread and memorized the four little volumes of the 1962 Nutshell Library, thrilled that months could be reeled off according to how you took your chicken soup and the alphabet recited with such phrases as “looking like lions,” “ordering oatmeal” and (yikes! something I knew you never did) “pushing people.”

But the Sendak books that truly gave me a taste of something beyond the safe confines of my driveway in a brand-new tract home in 1970s Contra Costa County in California were Higglety Pigglety Pop! or, There Must Be More to Life and The Juniper Tree. Both were given to my sister and me by one of our aunts, who often gave us books (including, the time that I had the chicken pox, some about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, as well as a stuffed white cat).

I pondered how the mop-like terrier Jennie could want to leave her home which had “a round pillow upstairs and a square pillow downstairs” for fame on the stage of the World Mother Goose Theatre by eating a mop made of salami (which was itself a huge conundrum to me). I didn’t know what I read in The Juniper Tree, including the title story which involves a mother dying and a stepmother decapitating and cooking up her stepson. (Plus, whatever was a juniper tree?) These stories, and Sendak’s cross-hatched, monotone, were frankly scary, eerie and fascinating. While Really Rosie doesn’t have such fairy-tale psychic darkness, Sendak’s drawings in the cartoon gave me a glimpse of a world of stoops, brownstones, alleys and endless apartment buildings, a Brooklyn landscape far removed from the stucco blocks where I lived.

Sendak in the Age of the Overprotective Parent

In The Atlantic, Joe Fassler describes Sendak’s “long history of scaring kids and their parents,” contrasting this to the penchant of today’s “insidiously overprotective parent culture”:

The evidence does suggest we adults sometimes take our good-natured desire to protect children from unpleasantness to perverse depths. I see it in the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting,” for instance—the misguided attempt to thwart all potential pitfalls through hovering omnipresence. We seek to foil internal darkness, too, by plying young people with antidepressants and anxiety medication. And we’re highly sensitive about showing children any sort of “challenging” material, even in cases when censorship verges on absurd. The new documentary Bully, which depicts the brutal realities of life in the hallway and playground, was initially deemed “too violent” for children, the very audience it portrays, and attempts to reach.

Do parents today try to make the world too safe for their children?

Consider the controversy about vaccines and autism. The suspicion that there could be a link between them (a notion that has been widely refuted) has created all the more outrage in parents of autistic children. Many parents have been tormented beyond belief that the very thing — a vaccine — they thought would assure their child’s health could be the cause of a child being autistic.

As Fass suggests, might a parent’s loving ardor to protect a child 100-percent plus from the discomforts of life, lead to said parent insufficiently preparing a beloved child from the realities of the world, from pain to failure to sadness? From not only experiencing these; from learning that they can be navigated and survived?

From knowing that mothers can get mad at you, and tell you go to your room, and still leave you a piping hot meal after you’ve been wild?


Related Care2 Coverage

Maurice Sendak Provided Vivid Bookends In My Life

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Image via katerha


Barbra D.
Barbra D.5 years ago

Here's the down side to books (no matter how brilliant) like Sendak's. I didn't like being scared. I didn't--and still don't--think it's fun. Frightening stories made me fear the world. However, the CBS nightly news in the 1960's opened my eyes to the injustices that were going on in the world. I watched the news with my parents. They were there in case I needed to ask any questions, but I figured it out for myself. My parents inspired me to correct theses wrongs whenever I saw them, and to help others. Children's books like Sendak's, or beautiful films like Walt Disney's, are about a child's inner, emotional life. If you want your children to be able to face reality, show it to them, and guide them through it.

Elizabeth Koenig
Elizabeth Koenig5 years ago

The wonderful thing about Maurice Sendak was not that he scared kids, but that he showed kids that they could survive being scared.

The little boy in "Where the Wild Things Are" sails away, meets the wild things, and tames them. He learns that you can have adventures and even misbehave, and still return to a safe, loving place. The little girl in "Outside Over There" is able to rescue her baby sister, even when the adults don't understand the threat.

Maurice Sendak is marvelous--and I especially love his artwork. He was able to render beauty, the grotesque, and the horrible with equal verve.

And i agree with poster Robyn Robyn B., who mentions Gaiman's "Coraline". This is a girl who dreams about more attention from her parents, then has this desire come true--or so it seems. Finally, she has to save both herself and her parents.

And Harry Potter faces even greater odds--and has to experience loneliness, ridicule, and pain along the way.

All these children face their fears and their flaws and triumph over adversity in ways large and small.

This is Sendak's legacy--and a marvelous one it is.

Shanie Mangulins
Shanie Mangulin5 years ago

Heavens! Thank goodness for Maurice Sendak! How else would we be prepared for the real terrors of today;s world! i shared his books w/y daughter & now with 3 grandchildren - they have loved his stories. I am certain that in 2112, children will still be interested in Sendack. After all, I still read Grimm & Poe...even Mary Shelley! And we now have Tim Burton & Johnny Depp as well. Thsnk you Mr. Sendack, where ever you are.

Shanie Mangulins
Shanie Mangulin5 years ago

Moments w/Sendack & my daughter, & then my 3 grandchildren have been the most precious memories of my life! Being somewhat scared prepares us for dealing with the realities of life!

Thank goodness that there was a Maurice Sendack and, by extension, Tim Burton & Johnny Depp...

Carole F.
Carole f5 years ago

interesting points of view.
there's something to be learned from sendak's books, whether one agrees or not. however, children can read them at every age level and extract a different message, each time, depending on their ages.
sendak had a sad life, but his genius as a writer has been embraced by many.
thank you for the article.

s. r.
p. q5 years ago

sendak on colbert was hilarious

John Mansky
John Mansky5 years ago

Thank you for the article...

Jane Barton
Jane Barton5 years ago

"Children understand the nature of evil in fairly tales and do not usually as a rule become violent adults."

The nature of EVIL? The "evil" in Grimms fairy tales was portrayed as the animals when in
fact it was the CHRISTIANS who were evil. Evil, domineering, war mongering, women hating, child beating, animal hating "Christians". I grew up with a steady diet of "Christian" fairy tales and Jesus mythology shoved down my throat and it was horrible. Bruno Bettelheim is full of it. I never became VIOLENT, just DEPRESSED. Fairy tales are NOT a valuable teaching aid for life, they teach a fear of DEATH.

marc page
Marc P5 years ago

(Continued from below) "Get over it. You are fine" the child WOULD get over it and be fine.

marc page
Marc P5 years ago

The 2 biggest threats to children to day are helicopter moms and psychologists. In other countries I have seen films of kids working in mines at 7 years old, earning money to support their families. People die in the mines from accidents right in front of them all the time. In Uganda hundreds and hundreds of child soldiers have been rescued. they have been forced to murder their parents and kill other children in the most evil of ways. Yet these kids, when given the chance, persevere. They are not 'traumatized' beyond repair. Nor does the trauma they do have debilitate them completely. Yet in the U.S. when a child breaks a fingernail they need "Years of therapy" to get over it! Why? Simple. We teach kids that it is EXTREMELY beneficial to be a 'victim'. And we teach that soon as one is labeled 'victim' they then need a cadre of people to do their bidding for them. The average kid today has a helicopter mom hovering. When they break a nail mom is right there to the rescue! If the nail got broken because the child was doing something stupid mom tells the kid it's not their fault. Mom kisses the broken nail and then spoon feeds the child. When that's done mom will even wipe the kid's butt for them. Then it's a trip to the shrink to alleviate the 'trauma' induced to the poor child. Then the child gets to listen to mom gush to all her friends how damaged her kid is. All of this when in reality if the child came running with the broken fingernail and mom just said