A new social contract

August 2, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

One of the most magical aspects of becoming a parent five years ago was knowing I could share my love of the great outdoors with my kids.

While my husband and I had done some awesome hiking and camping before becoming parents- being outside with our kids is different.

You move much slower, but you begin to appreciate the smallest things once again: bugs, tree bark, birds. You stop more often for snacks. To me, there’s nothing I love more than parenting in nature.

But I wonder: will I have the nerve to allow them to explore all alone once they reach the ‘big kid’ years? Can I contain my worry? Will my neighbours be ok with them straying onto their property, sometimes, maybe?

Like any child born before the age of the internet, I remember spending countless hours outside with my sister. Deep exploration meant we could play away from our house, or hang out by the Lake, or meander over to our neighbour’s property (several fields over), with no parental supervision.

Our world felt so big! And we were conquering it. Most of you reading this likely experienced the same things: pure magic. Unfor-tunately, our collective acceptance of giving children independence has all but vanished.

In a well-meaning effort to keep our kids safe from harm, we have deprived them of the one thing that they need to achieve both mental and physical health, so that they can build confidence, strength, and resilience: unsupervised access to the outdoors.

Many parents are simply not willing to let their kids roam anymore. “It’s a different world now,” they say. Cycling to school? “Drivers are too crazy, and kids can’t follow the rules,” they will argue. Meeting a friend at a playground, and walking there alone? “Not safe, someone could abduct them.” Going fishing, solo? “No way, too dangerous.”

These and other horrifying scenarios keep modern parents from managing their healthy worries. The anxiety they feel, of course, translates to their children.

My mother-in-law, who has been a child and youth counsellor and mental health professional for over four decades always says: “Anxious parents, anxious kids.” Anxious, indeed. Anxiety is one of the leading mental health issues in children and youth in Canada.

It can present in a number of different ways, but often in school children it’s social anxiety. It means either debilitating shyness, depression, or panic attacks, etc.

While I realize that this is only one aspect of our worsening mental health crisis, I believe it’s a crucial one. The concept of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder,’ as coined by author and journalist Richard Louv in his critical book The Last Child in the Woods, comes to mind. He passionately argued that we need to get our kids back into nature to prevent not only anxiety, but also childhood obesity.

While lack of access to nature is becoming a major crisis for kids- the solution is obvious: more time outside. Though Nature Deficit Disorder is not in the mental health diagnostic manual (the DSM), we do know that one of the most effective cures for troubled youth is immersion in nature.

Locally for example, the Pine River Institute in Mulmur comes to mind, where students go on multi-day camping trips which helps them with emotional regulation and healing.

The thing that troubles me most in life is that our broader Zeitgeist, ‘the spirit of our times,’ is nature deficit. Not just our kids, but many of us in every walk of life, have lost our connection to nature- and the consequences for our mental health are obvious. But what about the health of our planet?

If we aren’t connected to nature, why should we protect it? Our wild places are disappearing: they are almost non-existent around major population centers, and under threat of resource exploration beyond our neck of the woods.

Has Justin Trudeau never stopped to consider what it’s all worth? The Globe and Mail recently reported that gold reserves are dwindling beyond measure now. There is no truly pure ore left. But yet, companies like Barrick Gold will continue mining deeper and deeper- leeching chemicals into groundwater and displacing entire eco-systems.

I know not everyone feels the same suffocating terror as I do when they consider the rate at which our truly wild places are disappearing. But we should all be worried about our kids.

Ultimately then, getting our children outside is a win-win: good for them, good for the planet. But how do we achieve this?

We need a new social contract. An understanding among adults that kids should once again freely play outside, inhabit our public parks, ride their bikes to the corner-store, build forts by the creek.

We adults need to take responsibility not just for our own kids, but all the kids that will hopefully re-populate our streets, sideroads, and parks in imaginative play and exploration.


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