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Jay Griffiths on Kith

Jay GriffithsJay Griffiths is the author of Kith, which she says is "about the 'big picture', about how society as a whole treats its children." A UNICEF report in 2007 ranked Britain lowest out of 21 industrialised nations for childhood well-being; in the book, Jay looks at what indigenous cultures can teach us about chlldren's relationship to the natural world, why children are attracted to quests, their need for solitude and for space for imagination and dreaming.

Q: How can we allow children freedom to play outside when we worry all the time about their safety? In the fifties we went out all day and only went home when hungry or when all the friends had gone back home. There was no parental interference in our play and the creativity of us was allowed to develop naturally. radval

Q: Are you honestly saying it's ok to let a seven or eight year-old roam free on their bikes all day the way we did when we were kids? Isn't there a big difference between being risk averse and downright foolish? Some risks are worth taking - in my mind this definitely is not. milliesmum

Q: It's all very dependent on surroundings, isn't it? When my DD was small we lived in a cul-de-sac full of young families, with a small wood at one end. From the age of about 4 it felt completely normal and safe to wave the children out in the morning and call them back in for food, because they were safe, happy and we knew where they were. Also, every mum (and it was mums in those days!) would pop out to check on them all during the day. It sounds like another world now, doesn't it? My 3-year-old GS is growing up in a city and while they have lovely parks and many exciting places to visit, I think he will be well over 4 before DD and SIL feel happy to wave him off for the day. What would you suggest, Jay? clytie

A: (to radval, milliesmum and clytie) Yes, things do depend on surroundings, and on what a child is ready and able to do. Playing outside is just one aspect of my book, and the issue of safety is clearly important. I know the feeling of taking children for a bike ride and feeling utter terror if a car was in the vicinity. And yet children do have a right to be outside on the streets. There are needs other than the needs of car-drivers. There are campaigns which I support: for the pedestrianisation of some roads, good bicycle lanes, the 'twenty's plenty' campaign to reduce the speed limit from 30mph to 20, and the importance of plenty of parks for children without having to go long distances to get there.

"Children do have a right to be outside on the streets. There are needs other than the needs of car-drivers."

The second issue is 'stranger danger'. This is actually incredibly rare, and the vast majority of child abuse happens within the home, or by someone already known to the child. The trouble is that if a case of 'stranger danger' does occur, it is so widely covered in the media that it makes something which happens rarely, and far away, the appearance of something happening very close by. I share the fear, by the way, when I am looking after my tribe of godchildren and nephews, if one of them is out of sight for a millisecond. I feel I have been hoodwinked into this fear, but I do understand it.

I think one of the ways for people to feel more at ease about this is first to appreciate how very uncommon it is, and secondly to feel content to let children play out together in groups. A child outside alone is indeed likely to feel vulnerable, and their parents and grandparents are likely to worry far more - understandably. 

A UNICEF survey in 2011 asked children what they needed to be happy, and the top three things were time, friendships and 'outdoors'.

Q: Jay are you saying all children are over-scheduled? Is it inner-city children? What level of childhood activity do you think they miss out on most? whenim64

Q: It's all very well to make a stand and let one's child (or grandchild) play and enjoy a life free from constantly scheduled activity - but if all the other children in the class can play tennis, swim, play the piano etc and yours can't aren't you then putting them at a disadvantage after all? floppy

A: (to whenim64 and floppy) The very top thing children said they wanted in that UNICEF survey was 'time', and there is a sad and pleading note to that answer, with children clearly feeling that they are being rushed, stressed, and too busy for their own good.

In daydreams, which can occupy a third of our waking state, the brain becomes highly active in exactly those areas associated with complex problem-solving, because in daydreaming the mind roams freely, broadly and profoundly across one’s life. But the daydream police may be out to get them. I've seen reports of parents and teachers exhorted to watch for ‘daydreaming indicators’ which include blank expressions or wandering eyes. Daydreaming children are encouraged to join ‘structured’ and ‘productive’ clubs.  

Time is in short supply for many who are diarised into wall-to-wall activities, scheduled from the moment they wake until the minute they sleep, every hour accounted for by parents whose actions are prompted by the fear that their child may fall behind in the rat-race which begins in the nursery. If childhood is set up competitively, children feel the stress. Loving their child, not wanting them to be life-long losers, parents push children to achieve through effective time-use.  

Q: Do you feel that the 1 million+ children who are denied contact with their grandparents are thus denied opportunities for creative and imaginative play? l believe UK is low in the list of child well-being in this area? maniac

A: One of the chapters in my book is called 'Who Owns a Child?' and it looks at the role of grandparents while exploring the idea of the nuclear family, the loss of the extended family, and ideas of 'the village' - which of course need not be an actual village, but rather the sense of a community around a child. 'The grandmother is the source of an infinity of lullabies', say the Boora people of the Peruvian Amazon, and grandparents among the !Kung people have a particular closeness with their grandchildren, so children may discuss things with their grandparents which they couldn’t talk about with their parents, while grandparents might well act as advocates for a grandchild’s interests.

"'The grandmother is the source of an infinity of lullabies', say the Boora people of the Peruvian Amazon"

In Indigenous Australia, typically each child was surrounded by relatives and no single adult had the full-time care of any child. Grandparents were by turns guardians, teachers, entertainers, healers, story-tellers, singers, jesters, comforters and clowns. Many people ‘grow up’ a child, say Pintupi people and adulthood itself is defined by being able to take care of others. For the Ngarinyin people, everyone is responsible for a baby born to the community. Children in traditional Welsh villages used to be considered ‘village property’, and in Africa, there is one famous saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. In traditional Dakota life all adults looked after all the children, and two effects for a child were said to be a sense of great security and self-assurance.

All this is not to say that traditional societies are or were perfect. It is, though, worth noting how peculiar (and recent) is the idea that children must live as claustrophobic possessions of their parents, giving rise to the frequently intense difficulties of the parent-child relationship, the loneliness of so many old people and the isolated, over-burdened experience of being a parent.

Q: Elisabeth Truss has recently announced that when she recently visited nurseries children were running around without any purpose. Do you think little children of nursery school age should be in classrooms that provide adult structured learning activities or should little children be allowed to choose how to use their own time? What approach do you think prepares children best for managing their lives in the future? nanaej

A: It makes me wonder what 'purpose' means, in Truss's comment. Often, in apparently purposeless play, children are engaged in a profound make-believe. This happens because in imaginative play they talk to themselves in what psychologists call ‘private speech’, planning and thinking aloud. (In structured play, this private speech declines.) I'd concentrate on that management of their own lives. Because when children play imaginatively in make-believe worlds, they learn something vital to their development, the ability to control their own emotions and behaviour.

Q: I don't think you can compare West Papua and the Arctic to contemporary Britain - or any other country that isn't Western. What works for one country, won't necessarily work for ours. swishyswoshy

A: Well, what I'm looking at are the ways in which our society has much to learn from other cultures, particularly when our children are so unhappy, and they are saying it in every language they have, from riots to depression, from self-harm to bullying. I think that wherever there are useful things to learn - whether that's from psychology, philosophy, literature or history, or from the experience of other cultures - then I offer my curiosity.

Q: Jay - how would you define childhood? Personally, I think children should be preparing for adulthood. I'm not against play, of course children should play, but the slow pace of life 'back in the day' and also displayed in the countries you mention, does not resonate with UK culture and society. swishyswoshy

A: Children are both being children, and becoming adults. One of the things I'm looking at is the idea of the 'quest' element in childhood. The qualities of the fairy tale hero (sadly, too seldom female) are the qualities of intelligent childhood, preparing for the quest into adulthood - being canny, curious, courageous and kind, being true to oneself, being observant and tenacious, open-hearted, open-minded and generous.

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Q: What effect on children do you think the technological aspects of life i.e. iPads computers mobile phones will a have on children's lives and how do you see them affecting their development, if at all? grannygee

A: The issue of screen-time is a big one. The evidence is very clear that too much television is unhealthy: the amount of television that children watch correlates with measures of body fat; seeing violence on television increases children’s aggression; children who watch more television when they are four are more likely to tease and bully classmates at ages six to eleven. The more a child is exposed to the media (television and the internet), the more difficulties they will have in their relationships with their parents and the more mental health problems they will experience, according to the brilliant American social scientist Juliet Schor who shows not only how television encourages children to value possessions, money, brands and products and induces discontent, but also how consumerism in childhood creates depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Phew. Who wants that for their children? I'm not against technology for children as such: but it is a matter of its careful (and limited) impact on children. One of the best ways it seems to me that parents and grandparents can deal with this is not so much to tell their children that screen-time is bad, but to explain why too much is damaging: the vast majority of children don't want to be too fat, or become agressive or bullying or grow depressed, anxious and have low self-esteem. If children themselves are given the information about why too much screen-time is bad, they may far more easily accept that they should limit what they do. With your question about mobile phones, my view is that since it is too early to be certain about the long-term effects of mobile use for children, it is unwise to assume it's wholly safe, for unlimited use.

Q:  I do agree that outdoor and imaginative play is vital - but surely it can't be entirely at the expense of everything else? I might not like it but the world revolves around technology these days so surely having some understanding of that is essential from - say - school age if they are to keep up? And while I'm not the biggest fan of TV I still remember the kids who didn't have tellies getting teased for not having heard of stuff everyone else knew about. That was in the 70s - now I imagine it would be far far worse? wiggle

A: I think it's really important that kids have an understanding of technology and computers. Many parents I know are worried about their children having too much screen-time. Isn't one good solution for parents who know each other to talk to each other about how much seems a wise limit, and then try to all use that as a rough guide? Together with, as I said above, telling children themselves why too much screen-time is not a great idea.

Q: Do you think Western culture puts too much pressure on children to be individual, creative and strive to be extroverted? What about the children who simply don't want to climb trees and happy to sit there reading a book? I think creating ideals just means those who don't fit in, feel like they're not good enough. cheese

A: I write extensively in 'Kith' about children who seek quiet, solitude, and books: I look at the 'innerness' of children, their still moments. I have a whole chapter about the way in which children make those inner journeys to their own soul-values, their sense of their identity, their destiny, who they feel they are, and chapters on the importance of dens both for urban and rural children where kids can go for privacy, for moments of deep reverie.

"The vast majority of children don't want to be too fat, or become agressive or bullying or grow depressed, anxious and have low self-esteem"

Q: DIL has started Kumon maths with DGS and he is 3 years and four months. He seems really excited to do it - even asks for more maths after they've completed the task. I think he just values the attention and sense of achievement. What's your opinion on starting extra-curricular activities at this age - or any age? He obviously doesn't see it as learning, it's all a game to him. copycat

A: Yes, I agree with you, and as I say, 'Kith' goes into some detail about how children follow their guiding stars, how they get a passion for things, be it maths, or cooking, or reading, or dancing or canoeing. The importance of following that passion is vital.

Q: Surely there's a fine line between letting your child discover themselves and them running riot. Do you not think that too much emphasis is on 'finding yourself' as a child? I think most children like to be told what to do. It's easy to follow instructions. Too much freedom and choice causes confusion and stress for the child. ticktock

Q: As women we are brought up nowadays to have autonomy and control over our lives. Isn't the logical extension of your position that we end up treating children as little gods and dancing attendance on them? If there's no routine and we're not socialising them into modern life, just letting them run wild and follow their natures, how are adults to have lives? And this is true of women, particularly, because you can bet your life it won't be men dancing attendance. spotification

A: When I was looking at traditional indigenous cultures' ideas of childhood, there were two very common themes. One was the importance of closeness in infancy, followed by freedom for older children. The other was the importance of respecting the child's will. !Kung children of the Kalahari were customarily not forced into obedience and if they strongly refused to do something, the choice was considered to be theirs to make. Among the Yequana people of Venezuela, coercion was traditionally absent and deciding what anyone else should do, regardless how young they may be, was not on. With no sense of hierarchy of adults over children and no assumption whatever that an adult may consider themselves superior to a child, Huaorani childhood in Ecuador shines with independence.

And of course no one wants brattish and selfish children running riot: it's not good for anyone, including the child. But autonomy over oneself is not a synonym for nastiness towards others. In fact quite the reverse.

Q: Do you think it could also be said that children have too much time to lose themselves in play - to perhaps the point of neglect - because nowadays both parents are too busy working to spend one-to-one bonding time with their children? Perhaps scheduling activities is just a way for parents to interact with their children. cinnamonstix

A: Yes, I think there is a huge problem of parents being too busy working to spend time with their children. Again, to me, this isn't a matter of bad parenting but far more a matter that society as a whole has engendered an appalling situation where in order to have the basic human right of housing, many families need two full-time earners to cover the cost of horrendously high rents and mortgages. That seems to me a deeply important issue.

Q: Out of interest do you think it is a good thing or a bad thing for children to have pets? It's all very well saying it teaches them empathy and responsibility but show me a parent who hasn't ended up taking sole care for a gerbil or a goldfish or a puppy once the novelty has worn off. I know very few exceptions to this. Marcella

A:  In a UNICEF survey in 2007, children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness.

Children make friends with animals. They tell secrets to animals, they can feel consoled and understood by them. Animals, though, are important to children in a further sense: they are guides to thought. They lead children to leaps of imagination. Wondering what a wasp is thinking or what a snail might feel in the wind is part of the mind’s development, practising the quick spring of empathy. And, yes, of course parents do very often end up looking after the pets, but if that is the price to pay for things which are priceless, is it not worth it?

"One of the reasons kids give for not wanting to play outdoors is that they don't know what to do."

Q: Space and time is all very well, but given the choice, my two GDs (aged eight and 13) would spend all the time staring at screens. The only time when they're actually out and doing, as far as I can tell, is when they're at their weekly Brownie and Scout groups or when DS and DIL take them on a family walk, which (to their credit) they do most weekends. I agree that it's ideal for children to be roaming independently outside, but how do you resolve that with children who aren't especially interested? sunhat

A: One of the reasons kids give for not wanting to play outdoors is that they don't know what to do. But the experiences of Forest Schools and Forest Schools Camps is that you can make a few suggestions to even the most screen-bound child, and it doesn't take long before they find their way, enjoy it, and find it interesting. 

Q: It's fine now the sun's out but honestly during the winter, none of enjoys standing in arctic winds, trying to find leaves and hedgehogs, no matter how 'fun' you try and make it and especially if they're ill. What do you suggest we do for days like that? Fresh air is all well and good but pneumonia is not so fun. petitpois

A: If I have a sick kid on my hands, I make things cosy and warm, give them lemon, honey and garlic if they like it, and if they want to sleep, they sleep or if they want to read or watch a film they do that. And I'm sure you do much the same!

Q: I wondered what Kith actually means in your book? I thought it meant wider family. batgran

A: 'Kith' can mean something similar to kin, as you say, wider family, but in the phrase 'kith and kin' the primary meaning of 'kith' means native country - one’s home outside the house, not a nation state or political homeland, but rather one’s immediate locale, one’s square mile, the first landscape which we know as children.

Q: "There is a space around a child where even the air seems sensitive" - you obviously haven't met my grandchildren! Seriously, isn't this hopelessly romantic? I adore my children and grandchildren but they are human beings like anyone else and they need a degree of (self) discipline as much as a degree of freedom. You are right, I'm sure, that children don't get out enough these days on their own (though my GS roams around London on public transport very happily at the age of 11) but don't you think your idealisation of childhood does your argument no favours? Isn't your book actually in a romantic (and fanciful) tradition which looks back to an Eden that never was and has a lot to do with e.g William Blake but very little to do with 21st century children? Firenze

A: 'Kith' is not a book which idealises either any particular societies or children: I have several pages about some of the worst ways in which indigenous cultures have treated children, and I also explore some of the most appalling ways in which Euro-American societies have treated children. I've looked at the way in which children can be spiteful and violent, including the shocking case in Leicestershire where a gang of kids hounded a mother and her disabled daughter and son to death.

As you say, children need self-discipline, and I've gone into this in some detail, above.

I love it when people accuse me of being a romantic. Because I champion the concept. Not the kind of cod-Romanticism, the way in which the word is misued as a synonym for 'sentimentality', but in its true sense. Romanticism was - and is - a ferocious force of nature: it was - and is - a radical, political movement. Historical Romanticism fought against years of belief that children represented 'Original Sin'.