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Parent deficit disorder

“Here’s a subject that’s right up your alley,” said my husband one evening. He had just finished reading an article entitled, “Do your kids have ‘nature deficit disorder?'”

Nature Deficit Disorder, in case you haven’t heard, is the tendency for modern children to shun outdoor play. They prefer to sit on their rear ends and be passively entertained by electronic media (television, DVDs, GameBoys, Nintendo, computers, whatever). No matter how close the Great Outdoors might be, they don’t want it. It’s too much work. It’s requires too much activity. It’s a hassle. It’s dirty. It’s boring.

“I can’t write about something like that,” I told my husband. “No one would understand how we live.”

“So explain it to them,” he suggested.

OK then, in a nutshell: We live on a 40-acre rural homestead. Our kids help milk the cows. They gather eggs. They see calves born. They build forts in the woods. They catch tadpoles and frogs. They swim in our pond. Believe me, our children do not suffer from nature deficit disorder. Not by anyone’s wildest imagination.

But that’s just us.

“The ironic thing,” I continued, “is that these nature deficit disorder children are the descendants of the hippies, the generation that so loved nature that they changed the face of our culture. And now they’re denying nature to their kids?”

“Ah, but that’s where you’re mistaken,” he replied. “It’s not that kids are deficient in nature. That’s the symptom, not the problem. The problem is that kids are deficient in parents. You might call it ‘parent deficit disorder.'”

I realized that in many ways he’s right.

It’s not that an urban environment is unhealthy or even unnatural for kids. Children have grown up in intensely urban surroundings for generations, and it never did them any harm. After all, that’s what “Sesame Street” is all about, isn’t it? For decades, “Sesame Street” has presented an idealized, highly urban environment that’s healthy and wholesome. Children in “Sesame Street” might not see much nature, but they see a lot of caring and involved people.

So cities aren’t bad. Sure, someone from New York might never see a cow milked or gather eggs still warm from the nest. But then, I’ve never taken a subway or run to a corner bakery for fresh-made bagels, either. Each culture offers unique experiences that the opposite culture admires and thinks might be kinda fun. But just because a kid misses those different cultural experiences doesn’t mean he’s suffering.

Rather, the problem is that parents are not taking the time to show their kids the stuff they themselves grew up in – or wished they’d grown up in.

We are so busy working, building careers, paying taxes, dealing with obligations, trundling the kids to sports and other “enriching” activities that no one has any down time to be a family. Today, “down time” is synonymous with “waste of time.” No time to jump rope and shoot hoops while watchful mothers gossip on the sidewalk. No time to build forts out of couch cushions or lie on the floor in a sunbeam and dream. No time to eat a meal together after bowing our heads in prayer.

No time? Wrong.

Kids do apparently have the time to spend endless hours playing computer games or watching TV, or languishing in day care or after-school programs. It’s the parents who have no time or energy to direct or interact with their kids.

Children are not in school significantly longer than we were as kids. Nor do they have that much more homework. We had school and homework too – remember? – but it never kept us from doing all the things kids do. The difference between then and now is that our parents were involved in family life and kept outside commitments to a minimum. They also required us to get off our duffs and face the real world – outside.

Now we are so busy with our own careers that we project those career aspirations onto our children. If something is not advancing an agenda – whether achieving superior academic results or out-performing Mozart on the violin – then it’s a waste.

Kids aren’t just deficient in nature; they’re deficient in memories. What are the things you talk about from your growing-up years? The go-karts you built with your dad? The jump-rope rhymes you chanted with friends? The secret forts you made in the vacant lot or field? The solitary tree that became your refuge against the world? We all have memories like that. Our kids may not.

Think about what our children will look back on from their formative years. Endless hours spent in a sterile day care with crying children? A succession of mindless television shows? Achieving yet another high score on yet another video game? Being shuffled off to after-school programs month after month? Trying to recall the names of all the different nannies? Are these the “memories” you want kids to pass on to their children, your grandchildren?

No baking cookies with mom. No playing catch with dad on the lawn. No saying grace before dinner. No memories of any adventures, big or small, whether it’s discovering an ant’s nest in the woods or riding a carousel in the park.

How sad. How pitifully, pathetically, achingly sad.

If your children are moving away from you, it’s because either you are too busy for them, or they are too busy for you. Neither is a good thing.

Some might say my family is lucky to live in a place so surrounded by nature. Yes, we are lucky. But the important thing is not that our girls have nature surrounding them, it’s that they have parents surrounding them.

Nature deficit disorder might indeed be a worthy cause to address in our schools. But for goodness’ sake, don’t forget about parent deficit disorder. If your kids aren’t experiencing nature, it’s because you’re not showing it to them. Remember, it’s not the nature thing, it’s the nurture thing.

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