A Country Called Childhood

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By Jay Griffiths

Counterpoint Press. 432 pages. $28

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By Mike Weilbacher


Jay Griffiths' A Country Called Childhood: Children and the Exuberant World, is an astonishment: a jeremiad, epic poem, screed, and elegy rolled into one, a must-read for every parent, teacher, child psychiatrist, or psychologist, anyone who works with kids. Not an easy book, it is a necessary one.

"Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy?" asks Welsh author Griffiths. Traveling across the world, she notices that "children in many traditional cultures" in far-flung places such as Scandinavia and West Papua, India and the Amazon, "seem happier, fluent in their child-nature," and this book attempts to unlock the riddle.

"The world's not such a bad place," says Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame, the quintessential kid, "when you can get out in it." That's the rub. Today's kids are not allowed that pleasure. This is familiar territory in environmental circles . "In the USA," Griffiths reports, "the home turf of children shrank by 90 percent between 1970 and 1990." I'll bet it's shrunk even further since.

Country rambles across the complicated landscape of childhood, each chapter tackling a different issue: parents, schools, play, work, animals, language, time/idleness. Her withering glare is directed at Ferberization, politicians, the health-care industry, professional educators, the religious right. Her attack on schools alone is worth reading.  

It is sad that her analysis doesn't jump the pond too easily. That is one concern with the book: It is very British. Another concern is style. Griffiths is a wildly singular writer:

Children experience moments of such irrefutable now-ness and this-ness where everything is lit with an innerness so apparent, its presence so certain to the mind's eye that the body's eye may believe it sees it too.

Huh?

Still, by the third chapter I was accepting, even appreciating, her verbal riffs enough that when I came to a wall of a sentence like this I simply climbed over and pushed on, sensing the journey would be worth it.

"Receiving insufficient closeness in infancy," she writes in summary, "bored at school, over-enclosed as older children and plugged into dementing 'entertainment' could be designed to madden any child." Of course, there are responses: Forest Schools in Europe, where kids are outside all day; nature-based preschools, like the one at my Schuylkill Center; the Children and Nature Network, establishing chapters nationally, and more.

So on the next snow day, when the kids are off, commit a simple but now-revolutionary act: Open the door and kick your child out into our "exuberant world."

Mike Weilbacher is Mike the All-Natural Science Guy on WXPN's "Kid's Corner" and directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Roxborough. E-mail: mike@schuylkillcenter.org.