The new affliction for today’s youth

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I learned a new term recently: “Nature Deficit Disorder.” It comes from the book “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv, which is a national bestseller, so I’m really late to Rick’s party. Better late than never, right? Thank goodness this party never ends. It just gets bigger, and everyone is welcome.

Although Louv’s book is new to me, the topic isn’t. My husband and I have killed many a bottle of red in the back yard, discussing this exact lament: Our 1960s childhoods and 1970s teen years were so very charmed. How did things deteriorate so much? The things we grew up with seem foreign to today’s kids, except the very lucky ones or those whose parents make extra effort to connect their children with nature.

It’s all about the dirt, people. Back in the day, we got dirty. I remember making mud canals for hours in the back yard. True, an unattended and ambitious toddler armed with a garden hose will destroy Dad’s new petunia bed like Godzilla smashing downtown Tokyo, but it was a blast until he’d find out.

I’d savor the squish of cool mud between my toes, and run my hands through it until I’d look like chocolate, and blast the hose at one end of my canal to see how far the current would carry plastic farm animals.

On warm summer nights, I’d catch toads and put them in buckets, and of course, let them all free to be caught another day when I was done. Did you know that when you catch a toad, it pees? A lot? Did you know that you can learn to aim that at people? You can only discover stuff like in the natural world — not the virtual one.

Later on, we moved to an area surrounded by expanses of tall wild oat grass and oak trees, which we’d climb, of course. Sure, once in awhile someone would fall and break an arm, and end up in a cast. So what. Wearing a cast was just part of growing up. How can you learn what your body can and can’t do until you’ve pushed it past its limit and ended up with skinned knees or a chipped tooth or a cast on your arm?

Children of the ’70s and prior, think about it: How often did you see your friends wearing casts? How often do you see them now? Nowadays, a broken bone warrants a life-flight to the emergency room. Today’s parents hover over their children like they’re made of handblown glass. They cover them in pads, strap helmets on their eggshell-fragile heads, and rarely let them beyond arm’s length. Playtime usually means structured, organized sports, not random exploration of local fields, parks and creeks. And without an adult nearby? Unheard of. I suspect pediatricians today are seeing far more torn rotator cuffs from playing baseball than they do broken arms from tree-climbing.

Where did plain old playtime go? Unstructured, random free time to explore, and poke twigs into ant holes and see how high you can get the swing to go, without a nervous mother yelping, “Careful! Not go too high!” You don’t need Mom to teach you about “too high.” The cast on your broken arm will teach you that. What happened to the days when Mom threw open the front door in exasperation and commanded, “Out!” — and out you went, in search of something or someone to play with, and came home good and dirty?

Why are so few kids allowed to get dirty anymore? Louv says part of the reason is “stranger danger” so rampant amongst today’s parents. To be honest, I experienced that too as a parent. The world seemed newly perilous, for sure, but I let my kids still run free and ride their bikes unaccompanied to the park or to friends’ homes anyway. Living in Winters, there was an easy rule for them to follow: Be back home before the sun is behind the hills. Since you can see the Blue Ridge from anywhere in town, it left no wiggle room for excuses about being late, and conveniently adapted to the time of year. The hills were the best clock ever.

I also tried to introduce more nature into my kids’ world, but they were mostly uninterested. I don’t really know why. Being of the original Nintendo generation, my son was infinitely more interested in video games (the Super Mario theme song is emblazoned in my memory), and I could never get much more than a “meh” from my daughter. When she was 12, I took her on a drive through Yosemite and I was gushing over the gorgeous towering pines. She shot me a thoroughly bored expression and commented, “Mom, they’re trees. You see one, you’ve seem ’em all. Can we go now?”

Defeated, we got back in the car and drove home, stopping somewhere far more interesting to her: the mall.

How did the nature disconnect happen? Louv suggests that Baby Boomers — born between 1946 and1964 — are “the symbolic demarcation line.” It seems quite accurate. There’s something qualitatively different about kids then and kids now, or even the ones in between like my own. Catching fireflies and blowing on dandelions … pushing seeds into the earth and seeing them sprout … putting playing cards on the back wheels of our Stingrays and flying down the sidewalk with the wind in our hair … and actually noticing the wind… where has it all gone? Why don’t they care?

Is it even possible to get kids and teens to stop staring into cellphones and tablets, thumbs flying furiously, to go see what’s under a rock or at the end of a microscope? To notice the coo of a dove or the first star to appear at night? How do we protect our one and only planet when we’re raising a generation that seems not merely unappreciative of the earth, but unaware of it?

— Email Debra DeAngelo at; read more of her work at and

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