Where to begin with this sprawling, sometimes beautiful and often deeply frustrating book? Why, asks the English writer Jay Griffiths, are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy? This “deep riddle” arose from her travels among indigenous cultures in the Arctic, West Papua, Australia, North and South America and northern Europe, where children seemed happier to her.
In the West, she believes, childhood has become unnatural. Children are “enclosed indoors, caged and shut out of the green and vivid world, in ways unthinkable a generation ago”. She dates the plight of endangered childhood all the way back to the enclosures, when th commons were fenced in for private profit, cutting children off from the healing balm of nature.
She wants to restore children to their “kith”, their “square mile” of unadulterated nature: woodland, rivers, untrammelled play, solitud animals, private dens, high adventure, carnivals and time to daydream. Children, she believes, need to be close to beauty and mystery, to be gloriously free, in a kind of heady mix of Wordsworth’s There Was a Boy and the Famous Five. It is a beguiling proposition.
Griffiths believes, rightly, that these fundamental needs of children have to be defended in contemporary society. And she is a kind of prophet in the wilderness, warning us that childhood is doomed unless we act.
Griffiths is a self-confessed Romantic (with a very big R), believing in the natural purity and innocence of human nature and of childre in particular when it is free from the corrupting effects of the ills of modern civilisation. She has form in this genre. Her most recent book, Wild: An Elemental Journey , was an account of her quest for happiness and wisdom in her solo journey through the wildernesses where she lived with the indigenous people.
There, she seems to have experienced some psychological and spiritual relief from the depression and social convention that had provoked her questing journey. But it also fuelled a seething resentment and contempt for what she sees as the materialism and structures of western civilisation. She brings the same quest for a lost paradise – and the same angry passion – into her account of childhood.
As with Wild , it is hard to place this book in any familiar category of writing. It is a mix of polemic, memoir, rather hit-and-miss references to scientific findings and many quotes from the great English poet John Clare, the “the patron saint of childhood”.
She is at her best when she evokes, often lyrically, the endless mysteries and adventures that children find in woodland, the peculiar, intense pleasure of collecting “treasures”, such as bird feathers, the fascination of looking at a dead mole, the solace to be found hiding in their own private den. Her general treatment of play and its primary role in childhood is compelling.
Her explanatory reach regularly exceeds her intellectual grasp, however. She makes sweeping, causal links between child-rearing practices and all manner of social and political ills. In a chapter titled The Fractal Politics of Childhood, she declares that the practice o “controlled crying . . . creates the perfect conditions for consumerism”. She speculates that forcing children to eat only food from shops cooked indoors by an adult, and depriving them of the freedom to collect and cook wild foods on fires they make themselves, as they have for “years of evolutionary history”, could be the reason for the rise of eating disorders.
She quotes from a book by George Bush snr’s brother. He disclosed that their father, who had a “strong arm”, used to hit them with his belt – and, “boy, did we feel it!” That really sets her off. “George Bush senior grew up to strong-arm entire nations, invading Panama and spearheading the North American Free Trade Agreement . . . Invasion is, for the domineering parent, just part of the job, as invading nations is part of the job of the British prime minister or American president”.
She tells us that James Dobson, an advocate of spanking, had an enormous influence on the Bush dynasty, adding that he also publicly supported the invasion of Iraq. QED what, exactly? Well, further proof of her proposition that the domination of children in the home i replicated and mirrored in class hierarchy, the monarchy, the empire, “up to the scale of god”.
In her fervent belief in the purity and natural innocence of human nature, and particularly children, Griffiths is, of course, the natural heir to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He too believed human unhappiness was caused by modernity and materialism and exile from the natural world. He too turned his back on the civilisation and material progress of his day and sought instead to build a political Utopia, some version of the remembered idyll of his beloved island of Saint-Pierre, where human beings could refind their natural inner state of perfection.
Of course, Rousseau’s ideas also inspired some of the most disastrous political experiments in history, which tried to force human nature back to some state of universal grace by dismantling all social order, leading to the appalling excesses of the French Revolution, Soviet communism, Pol Pot and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
But apart from a passing reference to Rousseau, Griffiths pays scant attention to her intellectual heritage. A more historical perspective might have tempered her contempt for social structure and order. She airily ignores how we can find a liveable balance between children’s need for freedom and their equally urgent need for structure and safety.
Her relentless attack on modernity makes no mention of the inestimable advantages that prosperity, engineering, clean water and medical advances have conferred on children. Before they run wild and blissful into the woodland, children first have to survive birth and childhood illnesses and fill their bellies. Wordsworth’s Boy, after all, died in childhood, presumably from the kind of infection now, mercifully, easily cured.
Rather more serious is her failure to provide any compelling evidence to support her central assertion that children in Euro-American cultures are less happy than children in other cultures or in other eras. She makes passing reference to the 2011 Unesco report on children’s wellbeing in the UK, Spain and Sweden to support her argument about the importance of the outdoors.
That report, however, makes no sweeping claims that support her general assertion, although it does indeed find that the UK is at the bottom of the European league of child wellbeing and that parents there are more preoccupied with giving their children consumer goods. It finds that children’s wellbeing depends on many factors: spending time with those they love, having good relationships with friends, being involved in creative and sporting activities, being outdoors and having fun.
But living in stable families, in more equal societies, where parents, particularly in poorer families, are less stressed and there is more agreement about roles and responsibilities is also vital. In short, the report presents a more complex and recognisable picture of what actually makes children happy, and unhappy.
It would be unfair to burden a writer with the task of finding political or policy solutions to the issue of nature-deprived childhood, to the restricted, overly structured, time-stressed quality of many children’s lives. But if Griffiths is serious about her mission, she has, at the very least, to find allies. She is unlikely to make an ally of parents when, immediately after a discussion of separation anxiety, she rails against the “selfish capitalism of today which would put the high-powered job before the anguish of a child”. In that context, it is hard not to read “selfish capitalism” as “selfish mothers” concerned about their “high-powered jobs”.
But Griffiths’s heart is in the right place. Her writing is fluent and luxuriant. There are, for example, wonderful accounts of her affinity with nature as a young child; of the allure of animals. I found one passage particularly arresting, flooding my mind with vivid sensory memories, long lost to consciousness, of playing as a really young child with my dog Lassie in my grandmother’s back garden.
“From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself deep into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal’s den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads, and to feel the animal world in its fullness, in yawls, hackles and green scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality”.
But she often gets carried away in a verbal stream that becomes overblown, as in this passage: “Their minds need, and deserve, a whole world of utterly unfenceable freedom where everything has othering, everything is radiant with the possibilities of elseness.”
A bit more – well, a lot more – intellectual rigour, a little more historical perspective, a little more self-discipline would have made this a better book and Griffiths a more persuasive prophet.
Originally published in The Irish Times.
Posted: 17 October 2013