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June 14, 2012

No More Neckties

Besides being an opportunity to stock up on neckties, slippers, and power tools, Father's Day is a good time for the dads among us to reflect on that delicate balance between life's greatest blessing and the lifelong responsibility that is fatherhood. As a wise man once said, "It is easier for a father to have children than for children to have a real father."

No, operating instructions are not included with your first-born, but somehow most of us figure it out anyway, perhaps adapting good parenting skills we learned from our own dads and doing the best we can.

Here in the U.S., though, dads face a new challenge. We're raising the first generation of kids who are unhealthier than their parents were. Childhood obesity and diabetes rates are climbing, and it's not just because of Happy Meals. Kids today spend an average of 7.5 hours "plugged in" to electronic media every single day (including weekends). Eighty percent of American children live in urban areas with limited or no access to safe outdoor spaces where they can play or simply experience some little part of nature.

Being indoors and glued to a screen all day not only makes our kids less healthy physically -- it affects their cognitive function. Evidence shows that children who participate in outdoor environmental education programs do better on tests and behave better in the classroom.

For a wonderful example of a kid who both loves the outdoors and aces tests, see this newspaper profile of Lori Anne Madison, the amazing and adorable six-year-old who recently was the youngest-ever participant in the National Spelling Bee. The reporter did his best to keep up while Lori Anne and friends searched "for snails, slugs, tadpoles, water striders, baby snakes and more as they splashed in the waters on a sunny day at the Scotts Run Nature Preserve in the suburbs of Washington, D.C."

Somehow, though, we've evolved into a society where millions of kids grow up without ever walking in the woods or spending a day at the beach. This "nature deficit" is one reason why the Sierra Club works to help as many children as possible (a lot of whom have no full-time father in their lives) experience nature firsthand through our "Mission Outdoors" programs.

But back to Father's Day -- I'm a lucky dad. Our kids may or may not be able to spell dirigible, but they love the outdoors, love to go camping, and love wildlife. If we had let her, our daughter would have probably adopted a whole collection of baby turtles after we visited the spawning beaches of the leatherback sea turtles in Puerto Rico.

As for me, under duress, I do admit to occasionally wearing a necktie, but this Father's Day I'm asking my kids for something a bit more special. I'm asking for a day together outside (and I have a hunch they'll be more than happy to oblige). If you're a dad, why not do the same? You don't have to hike the Appalachian Trail together. A day in the local park or time spent doing anything outdoors that doesn't involve buttons, plugs, screens, or earbuds qualifies. Like all the best gifts, this one gives both ways.

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