I felt as if I were an unwilling accomplice to torture. Echoes of the victim’s screams rang off the varnished walls. The door, tight shut though it was, could not block the cries of panic. A baby, alone and imprisoned in a cot.

The baby’s mother was visibly disturbed, too, pale and tearful. She was a victim herself, preyed on by exponents of controlled crying, or Ferberisation – that pitiless system, cruel to them both.

Controlled. Crying. The words speak of the odious aim: a bullying system controlling the feelings of a baby. The mother had been told the situation was the reverse, that the baby was trying to force her will on the mother, but all I could see was a one-year-old demented by abandonment. One American mother wrote poignantly on the internet: “Is Ferberisation worth my heartache or am I truly torturing my child? It seems like cruel and unusual punishment.”

The idea is that babies can be “taught” to stop crying by being left to cry alone. A parent will occasionally check on them, but will neither pick up nor stay with the infant. In time, the baby will learn that crying doesn’t bring consolation and will cease the attempt. Parents are encouraged to schedule and limit the time they spend checking on the baby. Does the system work? Of course it does. That is hardly the question. The real issue is why would such a thing be promoted? Why would it ever be accepted? What does it reveal about modernity’s priorities? And how does it suggest answers to the riddle of unhappy children?

Cuddled, snuggled and tended, most infants, throughout most of history, have known the world unlonely. Among the Tojolabal-speaking Maya people of Chiapas in Mexico, children in the first two years of life are always close to their mothers, instantly appeased with toys or milk, to prevent them ever feeling unhappy. For infants under one year of age among the Aché people – forest nomads in Paraguay – most daylight time is spent in tactile contact with their mother or father, and they are never set down on the ground or left alone for more than a few seconds. In India and many other parts of the world, children may share a bed with their mother until they are five.

Many parents’ reasons for using controlled crying can be summed up in one word: work. Parents who want “routines” are keen on controlled crying, says Gina Ford, a famous British advocate of the system, and she comments that babies who have been forced into a routine will later adapt easily to a school routine and, one presumes, be more malleable to a workforce system.

Yet whenever I have spent time in indigenous communities, I have never heard anything like the shrieks of fear and rage of the controlled-crying child. If an infant is satiated with closeness, commented the writer Jean Liedloff, then as an older child he or she will need to return to that maternal contact only in emergencies. Such an infant will grow up to be more self-reliant, not because of the scarcity of early contact (as the controlled-crying advocates argue) but precisely the opposite: from its abundance. By the age of about eight, the Aché children, who as infants were never alone, have learned how to negotiate the trails in the forests and can be fairly independent of their parents. In West Papua, I have seen how infants are held close and grow into children who are fiercely, proudly independent.

When children are older, the desire for freedom seems unquenchable. I recently gave a writing workshop in Kolkata for street children who had been temporarily corralled into a school where they were clearly well looked after and, in the main, happy. They thirsted for the one thing that the school would not allow them: freedom. “They want the freedom they knew on the streets,” a teacher said, “to go anywhere, any time.” In spite of the troubles on the street – poverty, abuse, hunger and violence – the children “keep running away”.

Once out of infancy, Native American children were traditionally free to wander wherever they wanted, through woods or water. “By the time he is five, he is grown up, beaming with health… delirious with liberty,” writes Roger P Buliard in Inuk, describing an Inuit boyhood. By about the age of seven, the boy handles knives and wants a rifle and a trap line, and from then on he “travels with the men, as hardy a traveller as any of them”.

When I spent some days reindeer herding with Sami people, I saw how the children were free not only out on the land, but indoors in the summer huts. They rummaged around for food, finding a strip of cooked reindeer meat or a freshly caught fish or a tub of biscuits, deciding what and when they would eat: a situation that averted that major source of family conflict – meal times.

Autonomy over food from a very young age seems a feature of childhood in many traditional societies. The Alacaluf children of Patagonia fend for themselves early, using a shellfish spear and cooking their own food from the age of about four. Very young Inuit children may use a whip to hunt ptarmigans, lopping off their heads with a flick of the wrist. Travelling through the highlands of West Papua among the Yali people, I often saw village boys going off together, bristling with bows and arrows, to hunt birds, catch frogs and roast them in fires they would build themselves.

Meanwhile, in England, an environmental play project called Wild About Play asked children what they most wanted to do outdoors, and the answer was to collect and eat wild foods, to make fires and cook on them. This is the sign of independence demonstrated by children everywhere, controlling their own food and their own bodies. It seems that modern Euro-American children have two unusual food-related experiences: first, they don’t have early autonomy with respect to food; and second, they do experience eating problems.

As for physical freedom, a few years ago I spent a day with children of the sea Gypsies, the Bajau people who live off Sulawesi in stilt houses set far into the water. The children were swimmers and divers, boaters and paddlers, rinsed with seawater night and day until they seemed half-human, half-otter. I asked what their childhood was like. The answer was immediate: “Children have a happy childhood because there is a lot of freedom.” If happiness is a result of freedom, then surely the unhappiness of modern western children is caused in part by the fact that they are less free than any children in history.

I was struck by the obvious happiness of the Bajau children: spending the whole long afternoon with about 100 of them, not one was crying, cross, unhappy or frustrated. I can’t imagine spending an afternoon with 100 European or American children and not once hearing a child cry.

In Europe, one country seems to have honoured the relationship between freedom and childhood happiness in a way that the sea Gypsy children would have understood: Norway. A land of lakes and fjords, a country that has enshrined in law an ancient right to canoe, row, sail and swim, to walk across all land (except private gardens and tilled fields) in a freedom known as Allemannsretten, “every man’s right”, the right to roam.

In 1960, the American psychiatrist Herbert Hendin was studying suicide statistics in Scandinavia. Denmark (with Japan) had the world’s highest suicide rate. Sweden’s rate was almost as high, but what of Norway? Right at the bottom. Hendin was intrigued, particularly since the received wisdom was that Denmark, Sweden and Norway shared a similar culture. What could possibly account for such a dramatic difference? After years of research, he concluded that reasons were established in childhood. In Denmark and Sweden, children were brought up with regimentation, while in Norway they were free to roam. In Denmark and Sweden, children were pressured to achieve career goals until many felt they were failures, while in Norway they were left alone more, not so much instructed but rather simply allowed to watch and participate in their own time. Instead of a sense of failure, Norwegian children grew up with a sense of self-reliance.

Danish children, the study showed, were over-protected, kept dependent on their mothers and not free to roam. For Swedish children, a common experience was that, in infancy, just when they needed closeness, what they got was separation and a sense of abandonment while, in later childhood, just when they needed freedom, what they got was far too much control. Norwegian children played outdoors for hours unsupervised by adults, and a child’s freedom was “not likely to be restricted”. They had more closeness than Swedish children at an early age, but then more freedom than both Danish and Swedish children at a later age, suggesting that closeness followed by freedom is likely to produce the happiest children.

Unfortunately, in the decades since Hendin’s work, as Norway became more centralised and urbanised, childhood altered. Norwegian children now spend more time indoors in sedentary activities, such as watching television or DVDs and playing computer games, than they do outdoors. The suicide rate is now far higher.

In Europe and America alike, many kids today are effectively under house arrest, with 80% of them in the UK complaining that they have “nowhere to go”. It’s about four o’clock in the afternoon, you’ve got a couple of quid in your pocket but not a lot more. You’ve knocked off for the day and you’d like to be with your mates. The cheap cafes will be closed in an hour, you can’t afford restaurants and you are not allowed in “public” houses. You tell everyone who will listen that you don’t want to cause trouble – you’d just like somewhere that is dry, well lit and safe, where you can hang out and chat. So you go to bus shelters and car parks and the brightly lit areas outside corner shops. And then you are driven off as if you were vermin. The UK seems to be leading the way in how not to treat children.

A plan to erect a netball hoop on a village green in Oxfordshire was blocked “because residents didn’t want to attract children”. In west Somerset, an eight-year-old girl was stopped from cycling down her street because a neighbour complained that the wheels squeaked. In one survey, two-thirds of children said they liked playing outside every day, mainly to be with friends, but 80% of them have been told off for playing outdoors, 50% have been shouted at for playing outside and 25% of 11- to 16-year-olds have been threatened with violence by adults for… for what? For playing outdoors, making a noise, being a nuisance.

Saddest of all, it works. One in three of the children said that being told off for playing outside does stop them doing it. If there is one word that sums up the treatment of children today, it is enclosure. Today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and rigid schedules.

In 2011, Unicef asked children what they needed to be happy, and the top three things were time (particularly with families), friendships and, tellingly, “outdoors”. Studies show that when children are allowed unstructured play in nature, their sense of freedom, independence and inner strength all thrive, and children surrounded by nature are not only less stressed but also bounce back from stressful events more readily.

But there has been a steady reduction in open spaces for children to play. In Britain, children have one-ninth of the roaming room they had in earlier generations. There has also been a reduction in available time, with less than 10% of children spending time playing in woodlands, countryside or heaths, compared with 40% a generation ago. Younger children may be enclosed on the grounds that adults are frightened for them, and older children because adults are frightened of them.

In the Amazon, I’ve seen five-year-olds wielding machetes with deftness and precision. In Igloolik, in the Arctic, I’ve seen an eight-year-old take a knife and carve up a frozen caribou without accident. In West Papua, I’ve known youngsters of 12 or 13 with such physical capability and confidence that, when asked to be messengers, they completed a mountain run in six hours – a journey that had taken me and the guides a day and a half.

This is not only a matter of physical competence: the freedom that Inuit children traditionally experienced made them into “self-reliant, caring and self-controlled individuals”, in the words of one Inuit person I met in Nunavut in Canada. It gave them courage and patience.

Children need wild, unlimited hours, but this time is in short supply for many, who are diarised into wall-to-wall activities, scheduled from the moment they wake until the minute they sleep, every hour accounted for by parents whose actions are prompted by the fear their child may fall behind in the rat race that begins in the nursery. Loving their child, not wanting them to be lifelong losers, parents push them to achieve through effective time-use. Society instils a fear of the future that can be appeased only by sacrificing present play and idleness, and children feel the effects in stress and depression.

In many traditional cultures, however, children are held to be the best judges of their own needs, including how they spend their time. In West Papua, one man told me that as children, “We would go hunting and fishing and just come home when we heard the crickets.” In the children’s tipi where part-Cherokee man James Hightower spent so many hours of his childhood, games might be played until four in the morning. “The Indian is not like civilised children,” he recalls, “having a certain time to eat and sleep.” (In his mouth, the term “civilised” is not a compliment.)

“When we’re working, we just don’t have time to be bothering the kids,” Margrethe Vars, a Sami reindeer herder, told me. She broke off to drag on her cigarette, so her words, imitating European parents, literally came out smoking: “Have you washed your hands? Now you must eat.” She pulled a face: to her, children’s freedom was not only a right but a relief all round. As the summer stretched out in one long day, the Sami children would be up all “night”, and no one minded because every parent shared the view that children were in charge of their own time. So the early hours – bright with midsummer sun – would see the children revving up quad bikes, watching the reindeer, tickling each other or falling asleep.

“Here we sleep when we are tired, eat when we are hungry,” Vars said. “But for other societies, children are very organised. Timing is everything: when to eat and sleep, making appointments to visit friends…” She winced at the thought of the micromanagement. The Sami way produced powerfully positive results, not only in the reduction of petty conflict, but also in something intangible and vital. Their children would grow up more self-reliant, less obedient to outside pressure.

For the Wintu people of California, so deep is their traditional respect for the autonomy of the will that it suffuses the language itself. In English, if you “take a baby” somewhere, there is a sense of implicit coercion. The Wintu language cannot say that: it must phrase it as, “I went with the baby.” “I watched the child” would be, “I watched with the child”. The Wintu couldn’t coerce someone even if they wanted to: language won’t let them. When a Wintu child asks, “Can I…?” they are not asking for permission from an individual parent, but for clarification about whether wider laws allow it, so a child does not feel at the mercy of the will of a single adult with rules that can seem capricious and arbitrary.

Take a step back for a moment. Letting children have their own way? Doing just what they like? Wouldn’t that be a total disaster? Yes, if parents perform only the first half of the trick. In the cultural lexicon of modernity, self-will is often banally understood as brattish, selfish behaviour. Will does not mean selfishness, however, and autonomy over oneself is not a synonym for nastiness towards others – quite the reverse. Ngarinyin children in Australia traditionally grew up uncommanded and uncoerced, but from a young age they learned socialisation. That is the second half of the trick. Children are socialised into awareness and respect for the will and autonomy of others, so that, when necessary as they grow, they will learn to hold their own will in check in order to maintain good relations. For a community to function well, an individual may on occasion need to rein in his or her own will but, crucially, not be compelled to do so by someone else.

Among Inuit and Sami people, there is an explicit need for children to learn self-regulation. Adults keep a reticent and tactful distance. A child “is learning on his own” is a common Sami expression. Sami children are trained to control anger, sensitivity, aggression and shame. Inuit people stress that children must learn self-control – with careful emphasis. The child should not be controlled by another, with their will overruled, but needs to learn to steer herself or himself.

Will is a child’s motive force: it impels a child from within, whereas obedience compels a child from without. Those who would overrule a child’s will take “obedience” as their watchword, as they fear disobedience and disorder and believe that if a child is not controlled, there will be chaos. 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. The true opposite of control is not chaos but self-control.

• This is an edited extract from Kith: The Riddle Of The Childscape, by Jay Griffiths, published by Hamish Hamilton at£20. To order a copy for £14 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.

Source: http://m.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2013/may/04/leave-them-kids-alone-griffiths