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A Country Called Childhood, by Jay Griffiths

A Country Called Childhood, by Jay Griffiths.

You know less than you think you do. The constant reinforcement of that sorry idea has become a drumbeat under parenting, as advice books of every kind pullulate like toadstools after a storm. Such literature sets out to refocus your daily life with your child, usually with proscriptive rebukes and optimistic exercises — with easy-sounding answers that are often impossible to enact. Anyone who has raised a child will know how assaultive the abundance of such parenting advice can feel, how dreary it is to be told constantly that if you only did (or, indeed, had done) something slightly different, your child’s problems would evanesce, and you would have, through the alchemy of nurture, a child who is happy / well behaved / nonviolent / good at math / successful / self-­motivated / popular / thin.

Jay Griffiths has written a furious, sad book that counters this tendency. A Country Called Childhood is almost shockingly beautiful, a profoundly felt, deeply thought, fiercely argued examination of childhood, a plea against the corruption of children’s innate nobility, and a plunge into the reasons for their unhappiness. She strips the discourse back: Here you will find no specific admonitions about bedtimes or so-called attachment parenting, no bromides about nutrition. She is a radical thinker, and there are real and urgent insights on almost every page of her manifesto. It is written in prose that is hardly prose, a poetry in paragraphs. Griffiths is above all a romantic who reifies that transient callowness we often long for but hardly recapture. She is also an anthropologist who draws powerfully on her experiences of indigenous cultures around the globe. In evoking what has been and what might be, Griffiths will make you rethink not only your life as a parent, but also your childhood. Her book invites us to think deeply about writing, too. “Language, here,” Griffiths writes, “a beautiful partisan, waits with rifle and song to ambush us into remembering what we used to know as children.” Her best chapters come close to achieving that goal.

Sometimes, Griffiths is able to carry off the grandeur of her purposes; sometimes, she lapses into the hectoring moralism of a minor theology. Sometimes, she writes with incandescent hope; often, she manifests a disagreeable proclivity for passing Rhadamanthine judgment on us all. Believing her ideas to be impossibly radical, she presumes the opposition they could attract, and the reader, especially if he or she is a parent, may feel unnerved by the assault on even the possibility that he or she is doing a good job. There are many people who will agree with every principle Griffiths puts forward, and I wish she could find it in her heart to be a bit kinder to us, instead of treating all of adult, Western humanity as a grave disappointment. The whiff of Dylan Thomas in her prose calls out for that poet’s humor and lightness; her corrective book is an argument for fun, but it is not often much fun itself.

She is given to Robin Hood’s style of class resentment, and her endless indignation loses some of its punch for being so encompassing. She smacks a bit, too, of Rousseau and his noble savages; she honeys folk wisdom and assigns profundity to utterances that may be commonplace. Children lack the power to enact catastrophe, and she constantly mistakes that disenfranchisement for a sacred innocence. Although Griffiths can be immensely wise, she is also sometimes willfully naïve. Scottish peasants of the 19th century did not, across the board, sing when their children were quarrelsome; Scottish laws against extreme corporal punishment respond to the long-term use of the hard slap. Her correlations often fail the test of causality: “As Norway became more centralized and urbanized, childhood altered, involving housebound computer games. . . . At the same time, the suicide rate has rocketed.”

Her lushness can turn swamplike, and we wade through hibiscus-purple prose: “Kindled in earth, of a kind with all animals, kin to kittens, cubs and chicks, children are not aliens to wildness but akin to it, wild at the raw core. Their original fire is sparked by the embers of a world flame which also lights the peacock and the stars.” Or later: “All the oak-to-be is compressed within the acorn; all the autumn already inheld in spring. Children, too, elastic with incipience, share the latency of leaves in spring, drinking sunlight till they are ready to roll out the barrels of summer. . . . Children have gleaners’ rights in the woodlands of the psyche, finding in real woods kindling for the kind of metaphorical fire from which a phoenix can arise.” Or even: “Children are world-whisperers, whistling a universe into being in a tryst of cosmopoiesis, or world-making. And the world in turn is a child-whisperer, drawing them out, calling them out into their flowering selves.”

All this can sometimes obscure arguments that are cogent and well considered. Griffiths believes that we force very young children into too much independence at a time when all they want is intimacy (she particularly deplores Ferberization, or controlled crying), and that we then exert too much control over older children who yearn only for freedom (she is dismayed by standardized testing). She questions the hierarchical nature of most adult-child relations, and demonstrates that in many cultures and across much of history, children have been given a much broader right of self-determination. She is fanatical about the importance of the great outdoors, and believes that all children need the kith of woods, sea and sky. She laments the enclosures movement of the 15th to 19th centuries that eliminated most common agricultural rights.Concerned that so many children today require treatment for psychological ills, she proposes space and freedom as the cure.She makes an eloquent, loosely Marxist argument that children’s play has been overtaken by commercial interests, so that imagination gets upstaged by sophistry. She objects to the way the nuclear family excludes the wider penumbra of people who stand to love any child, describing all the advantages of a “well villaged” child who may belong “to the street or the commons as much as to the home.” She lauds the idea of childhood as a quest that is precious regardless of its destination. And she regrets the fact that too many children are cut off from their daemon — their true calling — by a dreary pragmatism and a rigid, unresponsive education system. She argues from the hard left of common freedoms and from the hard right of reactionary nostalgia.

Griffiths says Native Americans “believed that physical punishment would make children timid and submissive, in contrast to the sought-after characteristics of pride, independence and bravery.” We instead choose to control children, exercising paranoid fantasies that the world is more dangerous than it is and self-­serving ones that we can make it safer than we can. “This is not an individualistic society, rather it is a hyper-privatized one,” she writes, describing how much is off limits to modern children. Later, she observes, “If happiness is a result of freedom, then surely the unhappiness of modernity’s children is caused in part by the fact that they are less free than any children in history.” Griffiths notes that in 1971, 80 percent of Britons age 7 or 8 went to school on their own; by 1990, this figure had dropped to 9 percent. “Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time. These enclosures compound each other and make children bitterly unhappy.” She further amplifies this point, arguing: “Children are discouraged from acts of physical courage and this is more serious than it appears, for we learn with our bodies as well as our minds — or rather we learn with the mind-body — and when we see our physical selves modeling bravery, our sense of moral courage, political courage, emotional courage or intellectual courage is heightened. . . . The one thing which truly makes children safe is their own competence, their own capability, their authentic skills in meeting the asymmetry, irregularity and unpredictability of life. . . . Keep Away From Children only one thing: infantilism.” She reaches toward a life “not subject to immutable destiny but alive to wild grace.”

Griffiths points out that the word “bored” appeared only after 1750, in the beginning of a capitalist age, and that Dickens coined the word “boredom.” “Children reared on toys and products provided by corporations are learning a terrible lesson: They are learning that they have a scarcity within, that they cannot provide for their own play, or rely on their own imagination, that they are impoverished beggars of the entertainment industry.” She explains, “If children can’t pretend, they are condemned to someone else’s reality.” This, in turn, leads to children who become “the possessions of their possessions.” She describes manufacturers as “privatizers of the commons of dream” and says that “consumerism for children is a form of cultural pedophilia.” Such children “suffer from the utilitarianism of today; they are impoverished by modernity’s literalism.”

She describes a white headmaster working with Inuit children and unable to understand another culture’s rhythms. “He saw only an absence of clocks,” she writes. “He did not see the presence of time.” Later she expounds: “The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. The true opposite of control is not chaos but self-­control.” She speaks of how children “feel their impotence, and it hurts them” — how they are fruitlessly disenfranchised by adults. She insists, “The memoir is the literature of the old while the quest is the literature of the young.” Her book is both; it is a quixotic slippage into wistfulness, and also an exegesis of freedom, a panegyric to heedless ways. “Needing privacy,” she writes, “children are today given its opposite — surveillance, and this damages children’s soul-moments.” In the end, she says, we must achieve “a willingness to allow children to own their own time and to be captains of their own souls, following their own will, knowing that such a child will better be able to respect the will of others.”

There is no single right way to manage childhood. Griffiths seems to generalize from autobiography, presuming that the best childhood for her would be the best childhood for everyone; she speaks of finding the answer to the “riddle of childhood” where she might better speak of some among a near-infinity of answers. Some children thrive on urban privilege; some like predictability, structure and rules. Some are naturally fearful and need protective coddling. Some have mental illnesses not caused by modernity. It is possible to believe in the lost wisdom of historical models and indigenous cultures without discounting progress. Yet for all its irksome diktats, this galvanizing book will alter your notion of what good parenting entails and, by extension, of how to build a coherent society marked by “the political generosity of rapture.” As Betty Friedan called second-wave feminism into relevance, so Griffiths proposes a kind of childism — a movement for justice and autonomy. Like the best environmentalists, she delineates a catastrophe half-achieved and warns that it is half-­pending. With bracing purity of intent and spectacular reach, she questions the way we think of and treat children. Her musings might help build a kinder world.