Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, By Jay Griffiths

This lyrical plea to free childhood from control seeks ancient solutions to modern anxieties

Rebecca Loncraine
Thursday 02 May 2013 17:02 BST

I didn't just read this book; I revelled in it. Kith builds on Jay Griffiths's earlier books, Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, which explores cross-cultural understandings of time, and Wild: An Elemental Journey, in which she travelled across the world exploring what wildness might mean. In Kith she looks at childhood in terms of both time and place, across ages and cultures, weaving anthropology, memoir, travel, history, philosophy, literature, educational theory and psychology, all mixed with old-fashioned chutzpah.

In Euro-American culture, argues Griffiths, infants often lack closeness with their parents and wider extended families, which leave psychological scars. Simultaneously, older children are corralled and stifled by surveillance, risk-aversion, lack of access to natural spaces and a school system designed to develop employees but not psychologically rounded citizens. Drawing on the Romantics - John Clare, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge and Keats - Griffiths argues that the Romantic connection of childhood, imagination and nature wasn't merely a literary phase but an accurate description of children's needs. This isn't a dry literary analysis but rather a marshalling of the Bards in defence of childhood as a wild and messy wonder in an overly utilitarian age.

Childhood in Euro-American culture is now viewed as a troublesome stage on the way to adulthood that must be measured and calculated in exams from the age of three. Children are being demonised, pathologised, medicated out of messy ebullience. Children have been enclosed, says Griffiths, historically mirroring the enclosure of the British commons.

John Clare's writing becomes an expression of the horrors of this psychological enclosure, as loving and terrified parents refuse to let children play outdoors for fear of over-hyped "stranger-danger", stifling children in ever tighter regulations designed to eliminate risk. In so doing, says Griffiths, they deny children access to the outer worlds of private, unwatched play so vital to their psychological development. The natural playgrounds of childhood, the woods, have been lost to most children. "Children are being given medication for the sorrows of the psyche… and yet at the same time they are denied the soul medicine which has always cared for children's spirits: the woods."

Griffiths has a refreshing take on "nature" and the "wild". Ever sensitive to metaphor and the multiple meanings of language, she explores the idea of wild and wildness in etymology, and shows that it's connected to the idea of self-will. In terms of childhood, she connects this to independence and the development of a unique self. Self-will is an inner quality, argues Griffiths, nurtured by child's play away from adult surveillance, ideally outdoors.

There's a rare vitality and robust energy to Griffiths's style, which won't be to everyone's taste. I've enjoyed the synesthesia of her imagination and writing in her previous books, and the same crossing of the senses to reveal deeper levels of connection is wonderfully at work here. This is mirrored in the structure of Kith, which has a carefully tangential nature that beautifully illustrates the very ideas she discusses. Griffiths looks at ancient fairy tales from Europe and Native North America, telling the story of the importance of myth to children. This chapter, on magical thinking and the right-brained nature of childhood, has itself the eerie quality of a fairy tale, all wooded and brambled. Reading this book feels like playing in the woods.

The chapter on children's den-making brought me back to my own childhood. All children have an instinct to nest, to build their own spaces away from adults, where their vulnerable psyches can breathe and grow. Griffiths joyfully refreshed my memories of building dens, camping, exploring the outdoors alone and with friends or dogs, and reminded me of how much this play shaped my sense of self and world. Kith is an unabashedly Romantic rallying cry for childhood to be seen again as a sacred and natural state from which adults can learn. This book is playful and polemical, emotional and imaginative. It's as vital as play itself.

Rebecca Loncraine is the author of 'The Real Wizard of Oz: the life and times of L Frank Baum'

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