Children have been taken out of their natural habitat.
IT'S A startling proposition, one that might make even the most sanguine among us squirm: why are Western children so unhappy? Or to put it another way, why do children in indigenous cultures seem happier?
These are the questions with which British writer Jay Griffiths begins her latest book, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, one that has teased her through her exten-sive travels as she tried to track down the quintessence of childhood - its very nature - from the Arctic to Australia and West Papua, Scandinavia, Europe and the Americas. And this concern isn't her's alone, she is quick to point out: early travellers, historians, and anthropologists have reported the same sense for ''literally hundreds of years''.
Her conclusion is that Western childhood had been taken from its kith - its landscape, its natural habitat - and enclosed in artifice and consumerism, ripping out its fundamental nature in the process. Robbed of a close relationship with nature and of their time, children have become subjugated to the needs of a rapacious culture, turned into little consumers who have every aspect of their lives monitored and constructed.
Encourage rather than compel says Jay Griffiths. Photo: Edward Parker
In short, she argues, children have lost touch with their innate ''wildness'', which she sees as part of human nature.
''It's a force, it's a drive, it's an energy,'' Griffiths says, in Melbourne to appear at the Writers Festival. ''It's a sense of freedom, it's a sense of self-will, because the word 'wild' is connected to the word 'will'. And that feeling of self-will and the importance of controlling one's self-will is something which comes up in the book, for me, again and again.
''It's something that seems so much wiser: not to compel children according to someone else's will, but to encourage them to control their own.''
The relationship between ''wildness'' and ''children'' may not seem like one that too many parents would instantly want to encourage, engendering as it does images of small people hurling baby chinos or screaming as they chase each other chaotically in confined spaces. But that is not what she is talking about: it's not about allowing children to do whatever they please. She is conscious of the concurrent anxiety that children are in fact overindulged by cashed-up but time-poor parents, and given their heads far too often.
Griffiths is instead arguing something more nuanced. She places the will of the child in a historical context, harking back to the days of Puritanism and Methodism. ''One of Britain's worst exports was the idea that you must break the will of the child. That the adult's will has to be imposed on the child's will.''
That doesn't mean, though, that a child is entitled to be entirely self-absorbed. ''Nobody wants that kind of horrible, brattish, overindulged, demanding, selfish idiot kind of childhood. We've all seen children like that and it's obnoxious,'' she says.
''But the thing about it is, it's as if only the first half of the trick has been performed.
''The second half of the trick, which a lot of indigenous cultures themselves say, is that it's a matter of the individual balanced against the rights of the community. And that therefore it's not that a child's will is broken by an adult, but that they must learn to rein in their own will, that they must learn to control it themselves.''
Here too, she says, we need to shift the language we use in terms of raising children: ''All of those issues of obedience versus disobedience or control versus chaos seem to me to be false opposites. The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience, it's independence. The true opposite of control is not chaos, but self-control.''
One of the implications of losing that wildness has been to bring childhood indoors, to monitor and control it. In Kith, Griffiths rails against measures she sees as designed to contain children's innate spirit, such as controlled crying, the medicalisation of difficult behaviour that might in another context have been called ''exuberant'', and the strictures of formal schooling (as opposed to a broader idea of education).
She also writes a powerful chapter on the idea of the nuclear family and its incompatibility, in many ways, with human nature in general and childhood in particular. ''The importance of happy family relationships is obvious, but the cost of the specifically nuclear family is terrible and is rarely examined,'' she writes.
Griffiths is talking about what is often the absence not only of the extended family but of the community - the ''it takes a village'' idea of child-rearing. One of the costs of retracting the idea of the family in to a relatively small unit - where children are primarily exposed to one or two adults for most of their lives - has been a loss of sociability, which has ushered in ''the Age of Loneliness''.
This applies not only to the child, but to the adults around them. And that over-intensity of the parent-child relationship is in itself problematic, she argues, depriving all concerned of the buffer of the neighbourhood and the community, and creating psychological stress: '' … more than kin and less than kind, for both parents and children,'' she writes. ''There is a torque of anger and sadness.''
Here again, Griffiths is prepared to embrace an idea that will sit uncomfortably with many parents: of letting children form their own ''tribes'', and trusting them to take care of each other: ''Children in groups look after each other pretty well, and they're also pretty safe.'' Allowing children to, in a sense, belong to each other a little more, would offset the sense they are ''owned'' solely by their parents.
In our rush to ''civilise'' children and tame their natures, not only do some take on an adult world too soon - such as the sexualisation of young girls in particular - but it has also led to their commercial exploitation. Even very young children are now a huge consumer group.
''While it's incredibly important that children learn to use computers and understand the technological age, one of the really sad things that comes all too easily with that knowledge is a massive overdose of advertising and consumerism.
''It is a world which has started to prey on children and it then means that they feel they're impoverished, that they feel they have to pay money to get a play,'' Griffiths says.