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The Politics of Play

Seeking adventure in a risk-averse society

By Jay Griffiths

Published in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion magazine

AGED FOURTEEN and without his parents’ approval, the future King Henry II hired a band of mercenaries, sailed from France to England, and failed to take two minor castles. In the realm of fiction, the audacious and adventurous Huckleberry Finn, only “thirteen or fourteen,” rebels against the mores of the time and decides not to betray Jim, the runaway slave. Had either Henry or Huck been born into a risk-averse society, they would have been enfeebled.

Attempting to take two minor castles may not feature on every child’s to-do list, but lighting fires, making shelters, using knives, and coping with darkness should: this is how children learn to paddle their own canoe—both actually and metaphorically.

Nevertheless, I’ve seen barriers erected around a fire on Bonfire Night with notices saying, STAND BACK—DANGER, as if children must always take their orders from the signage of authority rather than use their own judgment. Some schools forbid children to play in the snow for fear of legal action in the event of an accident. We live in a litigious age, but this is about far more than that: it is about the kind of children we are creating.

By insidiously demanding that children always seek permission for the most trivial of actions, that they must obey the commands of others at every turn, we ensure that children today are not so much beaten into obedience as eroded into it. A risk-averse society creates a docility and loss of autonomy that has a horrible political shadow: a populace malleable, commandable, and blindly obedient. (In Stanley Milgram’s famous attempts to explore the roots of the Holocaust, a key factor was people’s abject obedience to authority.) Physical freedom, however, models all kinds of freedom, for children learn with both body and mind. When they see themselves demonstrate physical courage, they also learn moral or political courage—and independent thought, which has profound political implications. I’ve never met a child who didn’t appreciate Robin Hood, an outlaw who nonetheless practices a powerful and independent sense of ethics.

But, people say, if children are not controlled, there will be chaos. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is cited as if it were documentary evidence, as if, without the authority of adults, children will become vicious little monsters. Children are made to read this malignant propaganda against their childhood selves, and its message is beloved by those who believe that the opposite of obedience is disobedience. But these are false opposites. The true opposite of obedience is not disobedience but independence. The true opposite of order is not disorder but freedom. Most profoundly, the true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

Indigenous philosophies of childhood overwhelmingly agree on one thing: that a child should not be forced into obedience but should have liberty of body, mind, and will. Inuit children have traditionally experienced extraordinary freedom and would become “self-reliant, caring, and self-controlled individuals,” an Inuit person I met in Nunavut told me. By the age of ten, their self-control is “almost infallible,” according to anthropologist Jean L. Briggs. Similarly, Amazonian myths place huge importance on self-restraint and self-discipline. Fairy tales seem to teach the same message, according to psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim: at the end of the tale, the child has “become an autocrat in the best sense of the word—a self-ruler . . . not a person who rules over others.” Far from creating selfish brats or Goldingesque monsters, this philosophy emphasizes that the corollary of liberty is self-control. When children are both allowed their will and encouraged to control themselves, community is well-served.

Self-regulation may be taught by fairy tales or by society, but, interestingly, children learn it naturally in one particular form of play: unscheduled, timeless, unstructured play in make-believe worlds. During this imaginative play, children talk to themselves in what psychologists call “private speech,” planning and thinking aloud, practicing self-regulation, controlling their emotions and behavior. This is not just a matter of “good behavior” but of autonomous thinking, the thought of artists, creators, and politically independent adults thinking for themselves, uncontrolled.

While children must learn to control themselves, what they can never control is luck. They must learn how to live with it, how to dance with chance and mischance. Children recognize life is a huge adventure, and they must accept the dare. “Setting out to seek one’s fortune” is the readying line of folk tales, leaving safe harbor to meet luck both good and bad. Children play with risk, draw straws with hazard. A lottery, a lucky dip, or a lucky number all appeal to children’s knowledge that life is riddled with luck and that freedom means being able to deal with chance. But the risk-averse society, denying hazard and what is hazardous alike, is not only annoying but conceptually malevolent. It works against the child’s instinct to find a working relationship with chance and risk—otherwise their adventures cannot even begin, and they will remain infantilized, stuck forever safe indoors in the house “hard by the great forest” (as many folk tales begin), with no chance of setting out on the quest through it.

Lord of the Flies opens with misadventure, as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a “tribe” of “savages,” hunting, dancing, chanting, and “garlanded,” with their long hair tied back: “a pack of painted Indians.” Evidence from anthropologists and missionaries and from indigenous cultures themselves contradicts this image, indicating that indigenous children traditionally learned the subtle and sure kind of civilization, through positive self-rule. The novel’s message is also directly contradicted by history.

For there actually has been a real-life Lord of the Flies incident, and the result was the opposite of what is portrayed in the novel. One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip. They left safe harbor, and fate befell them. Badly. Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe?

They made a pact never to quarrel, because they could see that arguing could lead to mutually assured destruction. They promised each other that wherever they went on the island, they would go in twos, in case they got lost or had an accident. They agreed to have a rotation of being on guard, night and day, to watch out for anything that might harm them or anything that might help. And they kept their promises—for a day that became a week, a month, a year. After fifteen months, two boys, on watch as they had agreed, saw a speck of a boat on the horizon. The boys were found and rescued, all of them, grace intact and promises held.

This true story is a testament to self-reliance and self-control, a story of how to cope with hazard, how to go on the adventure of life itself. As an allegory, it tells us this: if children are allowed the practice of freedom, they may act in their own wisdom, captains of their own souls, shipwrecked perhaps, but not spirit-wrecked.

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Jay Griffiths is the author of a new book on the politics of childhood, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, available in the U.K.

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