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Nature Helps Kids Have Compassion For The World

In a time of rising social anxiety and mass violence, empathy seems in short supply. Exposure to wild places can revive it

Many believe our ability to engage kindly and empathetically with nature is indicative of humans' ability to behave respectfully and decently with others of our own species. Image courtesy Pixabay
Many believe our ability to engage kindly and empathetically with nature is indicative of humans' ability to behave respectfully and decently with others of our own species. Image courtesy Pixabay
When was the last time you heard local law enforcement officials blame violent behavior and drug use in our kids on teenagers spending too many hours outdoors, 
recreating, in nature?

When have you ever been warned by pediatricians arguing that kids who like to hike with their parents and friends have higher rates of obesity and juvenile diabetes than their counterparts?

In a daily newspaper, I read an observation from a county sheriff who expressed his opinion that many recent young offenders committing criminal acts had a passion for playing video games in which simulated murder and virtual bloodletting were the skill sets needed to “win.”

President Trump made the same claim after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Many readers here would probably assume there’s a connection.

But is it true? 

Well, the research says that causality is actually complicated—the impacts of video games— and it’s a topic best left for our probing another time.

The real questions are: should any of us be surprised by what the sheriff said and the inference he made? Secondly, what, if anything, can be done to confront the stresses of living in the modern world causing the number of mass shootings to rise? 

For decades, I’ve been fascinated by the assertion that we can create a better society by giving people more regular exposure to nature.

This theory isn’t new terrain; sociologists have been intensely pondering the topic for years. 

Now, at a time when gun violence should be causing politicians to bring their constituents together in a unifying national conversation, partisan-driven tribalism still continues to rule the day.

Also lost is any consideration of what is causing the violence, resulting not only in mass shootings, some of which come replete with ideological manifestos written by gunmen (yes, mass shooters with few exceptions are carried out by men) but high rates of suicides linked to depression, alienation and mental despair. 

Montana has ranked near the top, per capita, in the number of suicides for decades so living in scenic Shangri-la, by itself, does not guarantee bliss.

But here in the rural West, in communities such as ours where opportunities for enjoying a clean environment abound, many of our kids are chronically detached from an environment that sharpens their senses—and, as studies say, engenders more empathy— rather than deadens it. 

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others; to relate to their suffering and hardships; to feel compassion even for people who are not like us; to understand the benefits of giving back rather than approaching every moment as an opportunity to reap some kind of self-benefit.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others; to relate to their suffering and hardships; to feel compassion even for people who are not like us; to understand the benefits of giving back rather than approaching every moment as an opportunity to reap some kind of self-benefit.
In an essay which first appeared in the Orion Society Nature Literacy Series, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education and shared by the Captain Planet Foundation, David Sobel wrote how crucial it is for toddler-aged children to experience what Rachel Carson called "the sense of wonder."

"Empathy between the child and the natural world should be a main objective for children ages four through seven. As children begin their forays into the natural world, we can encourage feelings for the creatures living there. Early childhood is characterized by a lack of differentiation between the self and the other," Sobel wrote. "Children feel implicitly drawn to baby animals; a child feels pain when someone else scrapes her knee. Rather than force separateness, we want to cultivate that sense of connectedness so that it can become the emotional foundation for the more abstract ecological concept that everything is connected to everything else."

Sobel added, "Cultivating relationships with animals, both real and imagined, is one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood....There's no need for endangered species here – there are more than enough common, everyday species to fill the lives of children. And the environmentally correct notion of not anthropomorphizing animals can be thrown out the window."

A few years ago, the National Association of District Attorneys published a report titled "Understanding the Link Between Violence to Animals and People" identifying the connections between child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence and animal abuse.

"The link between violence to people and violence to animals is well documented by research, both nationally and internationally," the report's author Allie Phillips wrote, noting how one study found that 43 percent of school shooters had animal abuse in their background.  "In its simplest form: violence to animals is a predictor that the abuser may become violent to people, and vice versa. Abuse is abuse no matter what the form or whom the victim."

Those who engage in mass shootings obviously possess a low empathy quotient when it comes to considering the pain they are inflicting not only upon those they kill and wound, but the trauma which extends to widows, kids, family members, friends and even bystanders, including children, who are taught the world isn't safe.

As mentioned earlier, researchers see a correlation between those who spend time immersed in nature and higher levels of empathy, not only toward other humans but other species. That, too, will be explored in future columns.
A park ranger leads children on a hike in Glacier National Park.  Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A park ranger leads children on a hike in Glacier National Park. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
“Nature-deficit disorder” was first coined by Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods” a couple of decades ago. As a read created for general audiences, it was pathfinding.

The problem of “nature-deficit disorder” struck home when I helped organize a camping trip for pre-teen players on a hockey team I coached several years back.  The mom and dad of one of the boys graciously invited us out to their ranch on the edge of a mountain range for a retreat.

My goal was to build team camaraderie by removing the boys from an environment that was routinely familiar to them. We spent a couple of days there hiking, swimming, shooting hockey pucks against a makeshift net along the side of a barn, catching snakes, watching badgers, feeding the horses and being out there exposed to the ambient natural elements.

During our sojourn, it quickly became apparent that some of the kids, despite living in the Gallatin Valley their entire lives, had never been on a hike or hunt or fishing trip to the national forest and world-famous rivers that begin only a few miles from their front door. 

Some had never seen a garter snake in the wild, never held a frog, never enjoyed an evening counting stars in the night sky. They had never played in a natural setting long enough to worry about potentially seeing a real grizzly. It did not matter that they were living in Montana.

They had free access to some of the highest-caliber wildlands in the world and yet they lived detached.  These were not urban kids immersed in concrete jungles. Many were involved in sports; they spent countless hours engaged in a chronic over-dose of sports practices and traveling to games played in towns hours away but many had no favorite local hiking trail. 

I was floored.

Here's an astounding revelation that Louv offered in an interview more than a decade ago with Sarah Karnasiewicz of Salon.com when she asked if nature-deficit is most acute in cities.  

"A major study came out….that said that the rate of obesity in children is growing faster in rural areas than it is in cities and suburbs," Louv said. "Again, it seems counterintuitive. But it’s not so counterintuitive when you think about the fact that the family farm is fairly nonexistent now. Kids in rural areas are playing the same video games, watching the same television, and they’re on longer car rides."

Studies show, and Louv’s book made clear, the pandemic of future health care costs, learning problems and an inability to relate to one another on human terms that we’re foisting on young people. 

There’s something else.  We're compromising their ability to foster tangible, physical connections to the world around them and hampering their ability to verbally express their emotional response. Even in this age when they have all the information they could ever want, we’ve produced some kids that have less of a hand’s-on relationship with nature than any generation in human history.

Where did we go wrong? 

The catalysts, experts say, are many and they extend beyond the lack of attentive, conscientious parenting.  Louv says we’re filling our kids’ lives up, in some cases, not only with over-choreographed activities and electronic gadgetry that undermine their ability to think for themselves—even to have moments daydreaming—but we’ve made them fearful of going outside based upon an exaggerated sense of danger.

Never mind the shameless sensationalism of “Shark Week”;  we have politicians holding forth sensationally on the exaggerated dangers of grizzly bears and wolves yet every day in Greater Yellowstone kids are suffering sports injuries ranging from torn ACLs to concussions. Yes, the likelihood of somebody getting hurt on a soccer pitch, ski slope or football field is exponentially greater than every getting attacked by a griz.

Even our urban parks are completely devoid of trees where kids can climb; instead we send them to climbing gyms, which is symbolic of the new ethic of “pay to play.”  When I was a kid, those with casts who broke their arms climbing trees, with no overprotective helicopter parents hovering in sight, possessed mystique.  

Many park apparatuses that tested a young person’s physical coordination or agility are gone. Meanwhile, “dog parks” where canines can run free have proliferated. 
You don't have to travel to Yellowstone to discover a love of nature, feel empathy for wildlife and become sympathetic for protecting the natural world.  The connections that last a lifetime start early and close to home. Here, kids float the Mighty Mississippi amassing a wildlife checklist. Photo courtesy National Park Service
You don't have to travel to Yellowstone to discover a love of nature, feel empathy for wildlife and become sympathetic for protecting the natural world. The connections that last a lifetime start early and close to home. Here, kids float the Mighty Mississippi amassing a wildlife checklist. Photo courtesy National Park Service
Louv takes a shot at lawyers and today’s overbearing parents. "What we usually design is really more 'lawyer-friendly' [parks] than 'child-friendly',"  Louv said. "This is a litigious society, and a lot of the places you are talking about have been designed by attorneys, not park designers. But there is interplay between the fear of lawsuits and [parents’] fear of a 'bogeyman' that is going to hurt their children — indeed, they almost have become one and the same."

The National Recreation and Park Association reported that 75 percent of Americans live within a two-mile walking distance of a public park. Public health officials will tell you there's far greater danger posed to your kid's safety and health from physical inactivity and all the grams of processed sugar they're ingesting than from child predators or, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, from wolves.

We were warned about this deepening problem more than a generation ago. During the 1990s, Louv observed, the radius around the home where children were allowed to roam, due to parental paranoia, had shrunk to one-ninth of what it had been two decades earlier. Yes, I admit, that as a youngster growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and running around in the woods unchaperoned with my pals I was practically feral compared to today.

I love hockey, but my most enduring memories were not formed in an indoor rink on artificial ice; they involved skating the smooth wind-blown frozen lakes of the North Woods, sometimes gliding over thin ice that inspired you keep moving.  No one ever came close to perishing.

Those adventures in nature together with my mates not only cemented bonds of friendship but they instilled empathy for other inhabitants; nature wasn’t an “other”; it beckoned.    

As Louv noted in an exchange we had, restoring our kids' relationship to the physical outdoor world may not be a balm for all of society’s ills but it’s not a bad place to start.  

Teaching them to keep their eye on nature and not fixed to a screen helps them relate better in tactile ways. It also reminds them to lift their heads up and see a bigger, more inspiring horizon where their playtime isn’t on the clock, there are no referees or scoreboards, and no parents screaming from bleacher cheap seats.

EDITOR'S NOTE: One of the latest books to highlight the value of contact with nature is Florence Williams' The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Healthier, Happier and More Creative. Find it at your favorite local book store.
Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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