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Does a Good Parent Let Her Child Play Alone in the Woods?

A year or so ago, I was pushing my toddler on a swing in our regular Northwest D.C. playground when two strange boys let themselves in through the gate, one carrying a large wooden sword. They were clearly brothers, beautiful children with tawny hair and skin and very green eyes, dressed in brightly colored pajama pants and sweatshirts. Within fifteen minutes, the one with the sword—probably about nine, and older by maybe two years—had gathered up a posse of younger boys. They began screaming around the scrabbly hill that edges the park to one side, chasing after the older brother while he whapped at trees with his weapon, knocking loose tiny leaf-showers over their heads.

You never see children in this playground without at least one or two or four adults trailing behind them. Weapons aren’t welcome, either. There was an almost overt tension among the parents around me—I noticed some shared “can you believe this” glances: Who sent these hooligans out here alone, in pajama pants, with a sword! The kids were getting under my skin as well, swooping in too close to my son on one of their passes, as he stumped on his beginner’s feet from the swings over to the slides. But there was something compellingly fierce about their wildness—something rare, in that civilized and gated space. When one of the parents finally went over to say something along the lines of, “In this playground we don’t hit trees with swords,” my irritation toward the children finally transferred onto the adults.

I say all this to explain the range of my response to Jay Griffiths’s new book, A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World, an ardent, discursive, lyrical, and often frustrating paean to the lost paradise of childhood freedom in nature. Griffiths, who has written a number of books on indigenous culture, argues that the unhappiness characterizing Western society, particularly the unique and troubling unhappiness of our children, is at its root a mourning for the pre-modern liberty to wander at will through woods and meadows. “Children are being given medication for the sorrows of the psyche in greatly increasing numbers,” she writes, “and yet at the same time they are denied the soul medicine which has always cared for children’s spirits: the woods.”

Griffiths can be a tough read. Her prose style, while sometimes baroquely gorgeously, is frequently overblown. She tends toward logical leaps and flaws of oversimplification. One chapter about early infancy made me want to throw the book down entirely. But—as with the kids on the playground—there is something about her basic and frank wildness that makes A Country Called Childhood, despite its obvious flaws, still immensely appealing.

Griffiths’s story begins with the long-lasting effects of the Enclosure Acts, a series of English laws, mostly passed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, that consolidated open land once used collectively by peasants for grazing and farming and placed it in private hands. For Griffiths, the Acts are the original sin against the child-in-nature, destroying England’s open spaces, impoverishing the peasantry, banishing the public carnivals and rites of the Middle Ages, all in the name of industrialization and capitalism. “It is impossible to overstate the terrible, lasting alteration which those Acts made to childhood in Britain,” she writes.

The metaphor of “enclosure” runs through the rest of the book. Griffiths sees warping enclosure in the boredom and conformity of modern education, in alarm clocks and in corporal punishment, but primarily in the modern Western reluctance to allow children to go outside and play: “Tightly constrained by the enfeebling of a risk-averse, health-and-safety-obsessed society, many children are unable to light fires, paddle canoes, make shelters, use knives or cope with darkness.” To counteract enclosure, she prescribes unrestrained adventuring in nature, using examples from indigenous culture, folklore, and personal history to point out its necessity in children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual education. Her own childhood in England and Wales serves as a nostalgic portrait of what could be: “the bewitched time when as a child I … so unconsciously and easily slipped between the railings and [ran] to the woods, and … equally easily slipped between the worlds of human and animal.”

It’s becoming increasingly common to see children today as both stuntedly overprotected—to the extent that an unaccompanied child is such a unicorn-rare object in my local playground—and dangerously under-natured. Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” connecting the indoors-ness of today’s children with higher rates of obesity, ADHD, and depression. This March, Hanna Rosin published an article in the Atlantic describing how exactly we got here: the decades of stranger-danger, fearmongering safety litigation, and the general removal of risk from the public sphere.

Many of the basic points in Griffiths’s retelling are familiar, but she adds a lush texture of myth and cultural reference that is often extremely seductive. She is strongest in the literary realm, and two chapters on woodland quest tales and fairy stories are very successful, weaving together a number of traditions to show how fundamental these mystical narratives are, and how necessary to a child’s opening heart. “Ours is in many ways an age of literalism, but children dwell in the imagination,” she writes. “That is the world which fairy tales nurture—the glancing magic of the mind’s metaphors.”

When Griffiths moves onto less subjective ground, however, the work can stumble. Griffiths’s worst flaw is her fondness for black and white, pre- and post-lapsarian contrasts. She too often addresses “indigenous culture” in a monolithic fashion, carelessly jumbling up examples from all over the globe (“In the Amazon …,” “In Igloolik in the Arctic …”) and making them stand in for a far-too-pure wisdom. Modern Western culture, on the other hand, is treated with a nearly blanket disgust, an easy straw man of decadence, cruelty, and self-alienation: “[Today’s children] are less free than any children in history,” she writes. It’s hard to tell whether she’s ignoring many centuries of child factory-workers, trash-pickers, sex slaves, and coal-mine canaries, or whether she is actually arguing that they were more liberated than today’s children, simply because modern children watch television and go to soccer practice on weekends.

This selective view of things comes across especially starkly in an early chapter on infancy. Here she sounds exactly like one’s most irritating childless friend, full of advice about the evils of Ferberization, the long-term benefits of breastfeeding, and did you know the Ache forest nomads of Paraguay spend 93 percent of daylight time in the child’s first year skin-to-skin? She blames Ferberizing (the practice of letting a child “cry it out” to teach him to sleep on his own) on the rush to earn “private profits in … high-powered jobs” and claims that it “creates perfect conditions for consumerism,” leaving an “unspecified but insatiable hunger” that can only be filled with luxury goods. ¡Kung women, on the other hand, “work perhaps two to four hours a day, spending the rest of their time making music, playing or telling stories,” and so of course, “the closeness, the almost exclusive attention, unlimited love, food and comfort which each child receives in their first years provides strength and emotional security.”

I am not a ¡Kung woman. And so perhaps I have less equipoise when someone makes a tendentious and unsupported connection between a mother’s “high-powered job” and her child’s life-long “insatiable hunger.” After reading this chapter I went into a defensive crouch, and it took a while to recover. I spent a long time arguing with Jay Griffiths in my head, a sort of internal Mommy War on the subject of whether any alternative to the ¡Kung style of parenting might also be a valid choice.

But Griffiths’s willingness to throw down so fearlessly on the habits of the ¡Kung is closely connected to the value of this book. She is unrestrained—“exuberant,” she might say. You can’t imagine her ever telling a child how to play, or where, or at what volume. The exuberance of her thought and of her prose is matched by the exuberance of her desire—that nature-starved children be granted the real outdoors, the unenclosed “Eden, common as chaffinches,” not simply a few urban trees planted to shade a playground. That exuberant hope seems to me absolutely necessary today, even if I didn’t always agree with the specifics of Griffiths’s design. We poor moderns, attempting to parcel out little bits of wilderness with our carefully engineered “adventure playgrounds” and “nature therapy” programs, can only dream of the sort of unfettered freedom to skin our knees, tramp through streams in inappropriate footwear, and generally get up to mischief outdoors that Griffiths describes. This could be because it doesn’t exist anymore, and maybe never really did. But if we are going to seek this lost paradise—not in the garden, but in the woods—Griffiths’s very exuberance, her unwillingness to be enclosed within playground moral codes or Western social pieties, may show the path.