This past week Maurice Sendak passed away. I like him because he was a wonderfully entering writer, illustrator, and all around creative individual. I adore him because he had an intuitive wisdom into the emotional world of children and pathways to healthy emotional development. Pathways that can prevent emotional problems.
Mr. Sendak acknowledged in his writing that children experience pain, anger, rage, loss, and fear. He captures the experience of intense emotions in his famous book Where the Wild Things Are. We all have the potential to feel wild and to act on those feelings. The book shows children that strong and powerful feelings are normal and important. So important that someone put them in a book and told a story about it. So normal that after a great battle against the world and after we have fully explored the land of our anger and power, we will be crowned the King of our inner world! That inner world includes joy, sadness, fear, pride and so much more. The absolute best part is that when Max returns home he finds love, comfort, and security.
It is a brilliant image that captures a fundamental truth of healthy emotional development. Children suffer and some more intensely than others. Some of us just feel things VERY strongly. It is, in part, biological. Regardless, everyone feels fear, anger, sadness, powerlessness and more. For us to be effective in the world, we need to have the ability to experience and manage our emotions. We are not born with that ability. We learn a little by watching what others do. Most of our learning, however, happens when others respond to our emotional expressions.
When Max comes home no one tells him he cannot feel the way he does. Not one says you must be calm and happy because it is dinner time. He is granted the opportunity to work things out. No one started a power struggle with him. They let him work it out. I imagine the reason Max comes back home is because he has been learning, throughout his short life that at home, he is okay no matter how he feels.
There is a lot of science to support the conclusion to the book. I imagine that the creator of Max may have had an inside line on that science. Mr. Sendak had a very close companion who devoted his life to helping children who were suffering. When children are commanded to stop feeling or told that their feelings are unjustified or wrong, they are more likely to feel confused and to fail to learn healthy ways of managing their feelings. Children need to have experiences in which they feel anger, sadness, fear and they not be rejected or ignored or challenged. They need to know from experience that they do not have be panicked, enraged, or devastated to get emotional support. They need space to explore their feelings and the opportunity to come home for support — not have it shoved down their throat. Children also need to know that sometimes they will do things things are scary or frustrating or boring.
Our challenge as parents is to know the balance between accepting our child’s experience and helping them master their experience of feelings –in other words to change. To be effective in the adult world we cannot escape every frustration or fruitless pursuit. We cannot give in to helpless sadness when we lose something or someone. Children test out and practice negative feelings in order to learn that feelings pass. The come to experience that the way that they see things when angry is not how they see things when calmer.
There is little that is easy in this parental balancing act. We do not have to be perfect at it. It helps if we are genuine. It helps if we pretty good at tolerating our own negative emotions. It requires that we have someone to help us. Experiencing negative emotion and coping is so much much easier when we know that somebody understands where we are coming from.
Peaceful Families Act! Kelly