When was the last time you encountered the word ‘tatterdemalion’? I have just read one of the most playful, exuberant, relishing encounters with language that I have ever come across: Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths. The author loves language and odd words; she plays with meanings and roots and etymologies; she relishes alliteration and other musical tricks; and the cadence of her writing is positively lyrical. Or, as she writes (in relation to the metaphors we have for feeling and knowing, but which equally pertains to her modes of expression), ‘Language…, a beautiful partisan, waits with rifle and song to ambush us into remembering what we used to know as children.’
Yes, the writing is beautiful, drawing the reader in; but the point of the book is not language. Instead, in the course of writing her last book, Wild, Griffiths visited many indigenous tribes and found herself wondering why the indigenous kids she observed were so cheerfully grounded, while the Western kids she knew were so unhappy by comparison. Kith is her attempt to answer that question.
Her answer is long, opinionated, and unabashedly Romantic. In brief, she argues that kids in the West rarely get what they really need: secure early attachment followed by extreme freedom; a relationship with the woods and the wild, including wildlife; a big tribe of kids and adults; stories packed with metaphor which allow for the expression of a child’s emerging sense of self; lots of free time; rites of passage into adulthood; freedom from consumerism; a rich, responsive education; and so on.
Instead, what they get is ‘controlled’ crying and the physical isolation of cots, prams and car seats, followed by helicopter parenting and little nuclear families; constant surveillance; highly structured schedules; media outlets and politicians which portray them in a constantly negative light; stop and search laws, curfews and dispersal orders for the crime of being young; lives trapped indoors; hollow stories; no rites of passage; and industrial-style, heavily politicised education.
None of these observations are particularly original. In recent years, Skenazy encouraged parents to let their kids be more independent; Louv urged kids into the great outdoors; Hodgkinson called for tribes and freedom and faerie stories; Robinson advocated for an education which drew out the unique gifts of each child; and many, many writers begged us chilly Westerners to be more physically affectionate with our babies and toddlers. It’s obvious stuff.
What sets Griffiths’ book apart is the way she brings these themes together under the umbrella of Romanticism. She compares the childhood experiences of Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Blake, Clare, Whitman – with indigenous practices of childcare, arguing that they have much in common; and goes on to suggest that these approaches will lead to happier children. Further, she argues, we lack (but need) a Western philosophical framework to describe our parenting practices; Romanticism fits the bill.
I love her writing; I agree with many of her observations regarding how kids could be better raised; and I find many of her arguments regarding Romantic and indigenous ways of raising children reasonable. However, this book is so passionately one-eyed, and so flawed, that Griffiths fails to convince overall – and this is a pity.
To begin with, despite identifying what Western kids lack – such as secure attachment, a big tribe, and rites of passage – Griffiths offers few practical suggestions as how to get these things into kids’ lives. How do we make parenting easier so that parents have the emotional capacity to forge deep strong attachments to their children? How do we balance the needs of parents with the needs of children? How do we widen people’s perceptions of their role in the lives of other people’s kids, so that parents aren’t required to fulfil all the adult roles in a child’s life? In a post-church society, who develops and conducts rites of passage? And so on. These questions are all raised by the text; yet Griffiths offers no solutions, and it is simply not helpful to identify what is needed (and indeed to criticise harshly how we parents, of which Griffiths does not appear to be one, do it wrong), but to offer no suggestions for change. It is left to the reader to imagine what could be and then put it into place – and yet many of the necessary structures are almost impossible to tackle family by family: they require cultural change.
For example, to take the example of a tribe, it took nine years of talking and parenting before we found a family who was genuinely interested in and able to live in the same street as us, and, more than that, willing to get involved in our kids’ lives in ways that eased the pressure on our child-parent relationship. Griffiths writes rather breathlessly that, in one tribe, parents never discipline their own children; that is left to others so that the affection of the parent-child relationship is never damaged. That sounds bloody wonderful, but it would require a seismic shift in how we as a society take responsibility for other people’s children for it to be even remotely possible here.
Another weakness of the book is how Griffiths glosses over the hardships of life for indigenous children. Sure, traditional ways of childhood sound great for those who survive, especially boys: roaming, hunting, fishing, and untold freedom for kids. But traditional ways also involve high infant mortality, infanticide when the rains don’t come or too many girls have been born, the ‘betrayal’ (as it’s described in the book by a young victim) of female genital mutilation, the sexual trade of young girls to forge connections or strengthen associations between tribes, social controls which require high levels of conformity, even child sacrifice for religious purposes. In over 350 pages of praising indigenous childcare practices and criticising ours, Giffiths devotes a scant couple of pages to listing some of the downsides of being an indigenous kid, and offers no explanation or justification for these less than happy practices. This is deeply unsatisfactory, and feels unfair. At least kids in the West get to live when the rains don’t come; most Western girls don’t have their genitals hacked off with rusty razor blades; and the sexual trade in young girls is looked upon as an aberration and a crime. For these aspects of the Western approach to childhood, I am grateful.
Because I have never lived with an indigenous tribe, I find it hard to judge the veracity of Griffiths’ account of indigenous lives. Even so, I found myself questioning it. For example, in one place Griffiths writes that after spending an afternoon with over a hundred indigenous kids, she realised that she hadn’t once heard a kid cry, and that she couldn’t imagine the same situation with Western kids. Having just spent three weeks of the school holidays with two different tribes of kids, aged between 6 months and 15 years, I can vouch that even Western kids rarely cry when they’re running around in a pack. They get busy, and work things out; and so I’m not convinced that this lack of crying is a unique feature of indigenous life.
To the contrary, in fact. One of my friends lived for two years in an indigenous village in Papua New Guinea. When she returned, she told me that one thing she will always remember is the crying. It formed the constant soundscape; she said she could not remember a time when she couldn’t hear a child crying, and that coming back to Australia was a great relief from this point of view. Was this village, eight hours’ travel by small boat from Rabaul, ‘less indigenous’ than the people visited by Griffiths? Or, in her visits with indigenous people, did Griffiths excise weeping children from her experience and hear only what she wanted to hear? I have no way of knowing, but I am sceptical that the lives of indigenous children following traditional ways of life are always so blissful. (As for the lives of indigenous kids whose traditional ways of life are being torn to shreds, that is, most of them, I weep.)
This blanket enthusiasm for indigenous practices coupled with a blanket criticism of Western practices grates; and it also leads to ridiculous inconsistencies. Griffiths is scathing of the way Western children are penned up indoors, locked away from the wild spaces that they need for their development. Yet in a chapter devoted to the importance of imagination and metaphor, Griffiths writes positively about the Kogi people in Colombia, who identify a boy as a future spiritual leader. This infant is taken from his mother, and shut in a dim cave for the first nine years of his life; his only exposure to the wider world is through the stories told to him. After nine years, he emerges as a spiritual leader (or, I suspect, completely mad). Of this practice, Griffiths admits only that some Westerners may feel ‘ambivalence’. Horror is more like it. One is left with the impression that it’s not okay for Western kids to be inside playing the piano, learning to cook, reading faerie stories, building cubbies, or playing hide-and-seek; but an indigenous kid can be locked away in a dark cave for nine years. Oh, please! Clearly, this is absurd; yet Griffiths seems cheerfully oblivious to both the brutality of some indigenous practices and the inconsistencies within her text which lead her to condemn in the West that which she extols in other cultures.
Griffiths also suffers from the hopeless sentimentality towards children that one sees in non-parents from time to time. As a parent, I do find it helpful to be reminded to let my kids take risks, to get them outside, to let them have their privacy and secret spaces and special dens. I like being a little breathless about the idea of childhood, and I know that when we relax our family culture, everyone is happier and more cheerful. But I also know just how much of childhood is about shit and sex and fighting and greed and fear, not only in my own children or the children I spend time with, but in my memories of childhood; and it seems that there is little room in Griffiths’ worldview for such normal kids. Not all kids are large-spirited hearty adventurers or passionate artists. Griffiths seems to be unaware of the variations in personality which are found, I suspect, across all cultural styles.
Her one-eyed view also means that Griffiths fails to see the opportunities for wildness and secret places that city children find: on the subway, up the fire stairs, under the stoop, in a cubby, or in the branches of a tree at the local park. Not every wild space or secret den needs to be a rural idyll. She seems to miss the ways city kids lose and construct themselves, and make little nets of privacy, not just in folk tales but in music and dance and sport, and dreaming in the back seat of the car. Her unabashed primitivism lacks subtlety; and there is so much good about being a Western kid that I find it hard to perceive the crisis of childhood to which she constantly alludes.
So I have lots of issues with the book; still, I recommend it. Griffiths’ observations about what makes kids thrive are good sense, overall; and the great exuberant eloquence of her writing is such a delight, such a gift, that I am prepared to forgive very many of the flaws. Cat-shadows in beetroot patches will win me over, every time.
‘Obedience is deadly, will is divine and the vital wildness of the human spirit is purring, over there, like a cat-shadow in the beetroot patch.’
PS: If you’re not really up for a long, loquacious, one-eyed, deeply flawed rant – though why not, I can’t imagine! – but you still want to think about how to parent generously, I’d recommend Hodgkinson’s utilitarian The Idle Parent. My longer response to it is here, but, in short, it advocates freedom and choice; is packed with suggestions for ways to maximise love and affection and minimise the rage and frustration of parenting; and urges parents to seek ways of making family life fun. It’s intelligent, enjoyable, good-humoured and opinionated, and lacks only cat-shadows and beetroot patches. And who has a beetroot patch, anyway?