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Q&A about childhood in different cultures with Jay Griffiths, author of Kith: A Riddle of Childscapes-ANSWERS BACK

(44 Posts)
RachelMumsnet (MNHQ) Thu 23-May-13 13:01:34

We're running a Q&A this week with Jay Griffiths author of Kith: A Riddle of Childscapes. Jay's book came about while she was travelling the world in order to write her award-winning book Wild. She became increasingly aware of the huge differences in how childhood is experienced in various cultures. Post your questions to Jay about her findings and about what indigenous cultures can teach us about chlldren's relationship to the natural world. The Q&A closes on Thursday 30 May and we'll post up Jay's answers on 7 June.

Read Jay Griffiths' recent guest blog, Should we give children more autonomy over food? for Mumsnet bloggers network.

alto1 Fri 14-Jun-13 16:28:44

Where can I see the answers?

LucilleMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 17-Jun-13 10:52:48

We now have the answers back from Jay Griffiths and we will be posting them up shortly

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:00:06

First off, thank you all so much for your questions. Second off, here's a brief description of 'Kith'. It is not a parenting manual, but it is about the 'big picture', about how society as a whole treats its children. 'Kith' looks at children's affinity with the natural world, examines the 'quest' element of childhood, explores contemporary surveillance and issues of childhood privacy and how they can seek solitude, for reading or thinking. It looks at the importance of rites of passage, woodlands, fairy tales and children's relationships with pets, as well as chapters on education and on children's sense of time, ideas of den-making among both rural and urban children, and their imaginative play, and - of course - their great capacity for reverie.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:01:42



Which indigenous cultures did you choose to study and why?

Your title seems to imply that ALL indigenous cultures have a better relationship with nature- is this really true?

What research methods did you use when gathering data?

To what extent are you making a value judgement?

'Kith' took about five or six years to research and write, and uses material from time I spent travelling and staying with a number of indigenous communities from Australia to the Arctic, from the Amazon to West Papua. It references the work of a huge number of anthropologists, sociologists, and historians (nearly 350 books and articles in all!) and includes filmed interviews with indigenous people, as well as their autobiographies. In addition to specific language-use, I have explored literature going back hundreds of years as well as material from interviews such as those recorded for the vitally important Igloolik Research Project. You'll find that the references are to specific groups, including Ache, Ahousaht, Alacaluf, Ashaninka, Assiniboine, Ayoreo, Bajau, Boora, Cherokee, Comanche, Gungalidda, Hopi, Huaorani, Ihalmiut, Inuit, Iroquois, Kiowa, Kogi, Koyukon, !Kung, Kunjen, Laguna Pueblo, Lakota, Leco, Lohorung Rai, Maori, Maya, Mohawk, Mojave, Mowachaht, Nakoda, Navajo, Ngarinyin, Nitinaht, Oglala, Ohiyesa, Ojibwa, Osage, Pintupi, Salish, Sami, Tauripan, Tlingit, Turkana, Utkuhikhalingmiut, Wintu, Yarralin and Yequana communities.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:05:13


Your title seems to imply that ALL indigenous cultures have a better relationship with nature- is this really true?

There is no one quantitative way of finding out, but the media has written extensively about how our Euro-American culture has subjected the natural world to an unprecedented level of pollution and anthropogenic climate change, so this might be one possible angle from which to approach the question.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:07:09


I was wondering if we tend to idealise tribes, forgetting that tribal life could sometimes be, nasty, brutish and short. How can we incorporate the positive aspects into a world in which people live in isolated nuclear families?


What can you tell us about childhood in Africa? I mention this because I watched a disturbing programme about treatment of so called 'child witches' in the Congo. I have been haunted ever since.... And am thankful ever since for the human rights in this country. Isn it true that we are doing a lot right and have a lot to be thankful for in the uk??

I have no wish to idealise, and I have in my research come across some indigenous practices that would be considered shocking and damaging, including possible instances of socially-sanctioned rape, infanticide and female genital mutilation. I do, however, feel that it is still important to offer my curiosity and my respect for what is profound and interesting in cultures other than our own. I'm interested in the intellectual heritage of western culture, in so many forms, from literature to music, history, film, autobiography and anthropology, psychology, etymology, educational psychology, child development, linguistics and social science. I am also willing to see what is important in indigenous cultures. I don't think of cultures as a footie match; Western, 'five', Indigenous, 'nil'. Or indeed the other way round.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:08:42


How can we incorporate the positive aspects into a world in which people live in isolated nuclear families?

Good family relationships are important, but I feel it’s worth exploring the ways in which wider networks of adults can also be helpful for children. I think this is something which many parents know, and often try to establish for their kids, so that they have avenues into other personalities, other ways of thinking, and an access to wider worlds.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:09:50


I am sharing Royalmailer concerns here. Especially considering the very real issues many indigenous cultures face.

Among the issues I have come across in my research are the Stolen Generations of indigenous societies and the effects of imperialism, as well as the ongoing pervasive prejudice against indigenous cultures today. Other factors include the crushing effects of indigenous society clashing with non-indigenous society too quickly, and also the high suicide rates among indigenous populations who have lost their land. I have written in 'Wild' and briefly in 'Kith' about the ongoing genocide in West Papua. That journey was a tough onebecause writers are banned by the invading Indonesian military and journalists have been shot dead for reporting the situation. I felt it was important to take that risk in order to be able to write about indigenous peoples' experience in the contemporary world.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:10:45


I read the article in the Guardian magazine about your book, and you seem to use the word "children" when you mean "boys". I expect the freedom and autonomy you mention in all these other societies does not extend to the girls.

The book does expound on the freedom and autonomy given to both girls and boys, but I have also explored the ways in which some societies restrict the freedom of girls as they grow older.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:11:46


I have never heard of this book before. I would like to know, based on the Amazon blub I just read, on what she bases the fact that most of our children are unhappy?

In 2007, a UNICEF report ranked Britain lowest out of 21 industrialized nations for childhood well-being. I then looked at further results of UNICEF surveys which asked children themselves what they needed in order to be happy: these include time, friendships, outdoors and pets. The results were extraordinarily interesting. Children and young people express unhappiness in many languages, from riots to depression, from bullying to self-harm and I think that listening to their voices is a vital part of addressing issues that relate to our general well-being.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:13:03


I think if you get children to describe their worlds, they would often have positive things to say about them, even those who live in urban areas.

Absolutely. Most of us live in highly urbanised areas, so it’s only natural and pertinent that we bear in mind the importance of the urban experience of children too – their need for outdoor spaces, for 'denning' places, no matter how small, in the scruffy, untended bits of their home patch. It may be a bit of garden, a small park, or the back alleys, but it matters for children. It’d be wonderful if urban planning took into greater account the fact that all children have the right to spend time outdoors, and to provide places for them accordingly

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:16:26


When I was looking at schools for dd (we live in an urban area), quite a few of them had areas for "forest schools", somewhere where the children could be outside and learn, so there are efforts to get children closer to nature.


I love the idea of Forest Schools! Hadn't heard of them before. What are they exactly? Schools with outdoor spaces and some teaching happens outside? Or do you send your kid on a trip for a week to be in the forest? I could do with a week in the woods at the moment...

Links to more reviews of Kith:

Independent review

Literary review

Forest Schools essentially try to educate children outdoors, and there are also Forest School Camps, which take children out for days at a time, to the forests. I've written about the many of the great effects of Forest Schools for kids, as well as the woods and the quest element of childhood, both in psychological terms and in fairy tale terms. This talks about the incredibly common feeling that children have of wanting to go to the woods, and, indeed, the sadness of a situation where kids can't get to the woods because they are too far away, or because they are so unaccustomed to playing without toys that they fear they wouldn't know what to do. But, as the work of Tim Gill substantiates, it doesn't take a lot to trust a child to learn to play (happily) in the woods.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:17:34


I don't disagree with her that we protect our children too much. I do wonder, though, where that 'square mile of wilderness' (may be misquoting or paraphrasing) is going to come from when kids live in London or even, really, here in Belfast.

Yessss... I know where you got that line from – children's 'square mile of unadulterated nature'. Unfortunately, that line was incorrectly attributed to me by a journalist. What I have written about is the importance of ‘kith’ as the first area of place one knows – this includes elements of nature, however small, that are experienced by children even within inner-city areas.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:18:25


Jay, I haven't read your book yet, but very much enjoyed your guest blog.

My question is, what three things would you like to encourage mothers here to do, to benefit from the best child-rearing practices you observed in indigenous cultures?

There are no absolute commonalities within or between indigenous cultures, but there are two themes that seem to recur more often than others: one was the importance of closeness in infancy (as opposed to the 'Controlled Crying' system). The work of Oliver James and Sue Gerhardt also magnificently backs up the importance of closeness in infancy. What is really hard for so many families is the need to generate a double income to pay for the basics of housing and utilities, and to my mind this is a society-wide problem. Housing is a basic human right, and it is just wrong that in Britain (and elsewhere) the cost of that is so exorbitant.

The second theme was the importance of respecting a child's will, (an interesting comparison against the history of European child-rearing from several centuries back, which argued that breaking a child's will was essential to a healthy development). Basically, when a child is encouraged to respect the will and autonomy of others, then both the importance of individualism and of a sense of community can be strengthened. For a community to function well an individual may on occasion need to rein in their own will but, crucially, not to be compelled to do so by someone else. The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. The true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

If I were to add a third suggestion, it would be to allow children their own sense of freedom in time, as much as possible. Obviously, within the strict timetabling of school days, that is hard, but children's hours of reverie and unstructured play are important for their ability to self-regulate - and many studies by psychologists help illustrate that. And children need fun, magic, and metaphor: all of which they find in a freedom of time.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:19:11


I'm very interested in how children would 'naturally' be raised, and look forward to reading your book Jay.

Did you find a general similarity between the ages children are weaned, more independent and given more responsibilities so on in most 'natural' communities, or was there a large variation?

That’s a great question. In my experiences as a researcher, however, I didn’t find there to be a particularly obvious correlation – my feeling is that this would vary widely from child to child, culture to culture and moment to moment.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:20:25


isn't giving children control of their foods in areas where that food's mainly limited to meat and plants a bit different from doing it inn a country full of unhealthy foods which are quick, easy and specifically designed to attract kids?


I think the article raises interesting debate but I would like to ask how the writer sees this in reality. While we can give control to children in nature it's a bit hard to let them catch and cook in the city. I'm all for asking my son what he wants to eat (with some moderation from me) and getting him involved with cooking but modern day life isn't suited to a 3yo cooking/ choosing. What practical ideas does author have for bring more food control into western societies? (I'd let ds go shopping but somehow think wed come back with sweets not food from tescos- a problem indigenous societies don't have, an abundance of food)

I think it’s crucial to restrict advertising to children, and to stop the practice of supermarkets putting junk food at a child’s eye level. It’s not fair on kids in the long run, and as any adult knows, it’s not fair on parents either, because just when you’re busy and hungry, there are tantrum temptations waiting on every side. In this case it’s not so much about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting as it is about society more generally prioritising corporate profit above children’s well-being. It’s a tricky situation and a difficult habit to break, particularly when both you and the child are pressed for time (and hungry), and there are tantrum-temptations waiting on every aisle.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:21:26


I do think children having a bit of freedom is a good thing, I remember heading out as a pre-teen in a gang, exploring the woods, I think it was an important time, learning some independence, learning about risks, also learning how to communicate / negotiate in a group without adults, not at school, not on a play date.

Yes, yes and yes again! How much they learn from each other, how they practise a sense of being sources of care for each other and not just recipients of care from adults. How they develop worlds of hilarity, smut, braggadocio, business: how there is a subculture of childhood lore which goes back hundreds of years. How they call each other 'people' and not 'children'; how they practice a slightly swerving morality. And much more besides...

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:22:35


Absolutely, Scrubfowl. But that's DCs who have access to woods - is it the same for urban kids who would be exploring city centres?

I was talking on Radio 4's Start the Week a few weeks back, and the twelve-year old daughter of a friend of mine, living in Brixton, was listening. She so agreed with what I was saying about the rights of urban kids to play out, that later in the day, she got together all the kids she could find, and they went and reclaimed the streets for themselves. I don't mean the roadways, I mean the pavements, the corners, the alleys: and I think they are absolutely right to do that, particularly, obviously in the safety of a gang of them together. The street is the urban commons, and city children do have a right to be outside on the streets. It seems to me that society as a whole has to address the fact that there are needs other than the needs of car-drivers: children have needs too, and that includes the creation of safe streets. 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. Many people support these initiatives: we need to make those voices heard.

JayGriffiths Mon 17-Jun-13 11:23:33


Not so much a question as an observation: the thing about kids wearing goggles to play conkers is a myth

It is a funny story. A little background for everyone else -- I chose two examples of 'elf 'n' safety gawn mad, in 'Kith'. One was conkers, and as the Guardian reports, the World Junior Conkers Championships on the Isle of Wight had a requirement for the children to wear goggles. (The 'myth' part was specifically about a headmaster.) My other example was the donkey derby, in Llandudno, where children were not allowed to ride the donkeys. Inflatable sheep replaced children. Only too sadly, both are true.
There is, however, a bigger issue here: constrained by 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. Further, we learn with our bodies as well as our minds and when we see our physical selves modelling bravery, our sense of moral courage, political courage, or intellectual courage may be heightened.

Rather than learning to trust their own judgement, children are taught to obey the signs of the authorities, so barriers are erected around a Guy Fawkes bonfire, with notices saying ‘Stand back – Danger’ as if children are to take their orders from signage, not from the fact that there is a blazing pyre melting their wellies.

We might be living in a culture where people are ready to sue at the drop of a hat, but I also think there is an implication that children must always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn.The risk-averse society creates a docility and a loss of autonomy which has a worrying political shadow. A populace malleable. Commandable. Obedient.

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