The Original ‘Wild Child’

Thirty-three years ago, a children’s book called “Where the Wild Things Are” won the Caldicott Medal — and became an instant classic. This amusing story about a little boy named Max has become one of the ten best-selling children’s books of all time. But many parents don’t realize that the book celebrates something they spend a lot of time trying to stamp out in their own kids: unfettered rebellion. “Where the Wild Things Are” tells the story of Max, a little boy who enjoys wearing a wolf suit. As it turns out, the wolf suit is an appropriate choice. When Max misbehaves, his mother sends him to his room without supper. There Max is caught up into a sort of reverie. The room turns into a forest and Max sails to an exotic island filled with huge wild beasts. But Max isn’t scared. He’s the wildest beast of them all — in fact, he’s crowned the king of all wild things. Max leads the wild things into a wild rumpus. When he gets homesick, Max sails back to his room, where his supper is waiting for him. The story and pictures are cute — but what strikes me is that Max’s misbehavior is also portrayed as cute. His imaginary trip to the island of wild things is a confirmation of Max’s wildness. For example, his first act as king of the wild things is to lead the beasts into a sort of bacchanalian dance — a type of cathartic pagan celebration. The story appears to celebrate the wildness in all of us — what Freud called the id. It’s the lustful, animal-like part of us that wants to throw off the shackles of civilization and act wildly. Max is, remember, wearing a wolf suit. The message seems to be that there’s nothing wrong with letting go with every wild, uncontrolled impulse we experience. But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that acting on our natural desires is self- destructive. The rebelliousness and wildness so celebrated in the sixties have given us every social ill from divorce to death from AIDS. That’s because the impulse to follow our feelings doesn’t just benignly run its course. In real life, misbehaving children don’t come to their senses on their own. Instead, they grow up to be misbehaving adults — just as Scripture teaches. When we indulge our impulses, we become slaves to them. The Bible says that self-discipline is necessary because of our fallen nature. But self-control doesn’t come naturally as we grow older. Religion and morality are necessary to help us tame the wildness within. “Where the Wild Things Are,” arriving as it did in 1964, perfectly embodied the Zeitgeist of its day. Its continued popularity is evidence that we are still deeply influenced by the idealization of rebellion that it celebrates. The fact that the critics love the book as well is proof that we can’t leave the job of literary criticism to the academics. It’s a role we all have to take on. Otherwise, the “wild child” in your own home may grow up to be an even wilder — and self- destructive — adult.


Chuck Colson


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