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By Deesha Philyaw Thomas
Sunday, May 29, 2005

"I like to play indoors better, 'cause that's where all the electrical outlets are." To Richard Louv, this comment from a fourth grader is further evidence of our children's diminished ties to the natural world, a disconnection he believes is making them sick. Obesity and depression, he argues, are hallmarks of childhood in an increasingly plugged-in, online world. In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin, $24.95), he calls for a nature-child reunion.

Louv, a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, suggests that "nature-deficit disorder" be used to describe the "human costs of alienation from nature," including, in his view, various physical and mental illnesses. He cites new studies that offer hope, linking exposure to nature with improved cognitive abilities and mental health in children, and to a reduction in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Louv writes of his own childhood: "The woods were my Ritalin." According to him, children today are less inclined and less free to engage in activities that previous generations took for granted, such as playing in vacant lots and building treehouses. Television and video games aren't the only culprits. Fear of litigation and stringent neighborhood covenants restricting the free use of open space limit children's play as well. Parents' sometimes unfounded fears also are "effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields." Louv argues that more time in nature, not less, enhances children's safety by heightening their senses and strengthening their self-confidence. He also offers suggestions for reacquainting children with nature.

Louv touts environment-based education, in which the local landscape is a curricular focal point, and he praises communities that are on the cutting edge of preserving nature and making it available for child-friendly exploration. With this scholarly yet practical book, Louv offers solutions today for a healthier, greener tomorrow.

Lightning in a Bottle

Bonnie Buxton's daughter, Colette, was a beautiful, energetic toddler who stole the hearts of her adoptive parents. But by first grade, Buxton writes in Damaged Angels: An Adoptive Mother Discovers the Tragic Toll of Alcohol in Pregnancy (Carroll & Graf; paperback, $15.95), Colette was stealing money and lying, seemingly without remorse. Buxton, a Toronto-based journalist, struggled for years to get special education and therapy for her daughter. School and mental health professionals downplayed Colette's problems; some blamed Buxton and her husband, and even Colette herself. By age 14, Colette was sexually active and involved with drugs.

Only after Colette became a homeless crack addict at age 18 did Buxton discover that her daughter suffers from permanent brain damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Like many of the estimated 3 million affected Americans, Colette does not have the "face" (wide-set eyes) and severely impaired intelligence usually associated with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which has been popularized by the media and often presumed to be mainly a Native American disorder. In fact, FAS is just the most physically obvious manifestation of several impairments covered by the umbrella term Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).

Buxton presents well-documented studies and anecdotal evidence that challenge the notion that there is a safe threshold of alcohol consumption or a safe time to drink during pregnancy. When prenatal alcohol exposure results in FASD, children may require specialized treatment for learning disabilities and behavior problems. Diagnosis is key yet often elusive. To skeptics tempted to write off these "bad" children, Buxton notes that the preventable tragedy of FASD costs Americans $3-4 billion annually in social and medical services, welfare, criminal justice expenses and lost productivity.

Buxton's heart-wrenching book is a wellspring of information and compassion for families dealing with this condition and a must-read for concerned parents and professionals.

Ties That Bind

For nearly three decades, Swiss psychoanalyst Alice Miller has written extensively about the long-term effects of parental cruelty. Hitler's atrocities, Miller suggests, were the direct result of daily beatings by his father, a subject Miller explored in For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (1983). But repressed rage from childhood does not always explode outward in adulthood. Sometimes it turns inward.

The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting (Norton, $23.95), translated from the German by Andrew Jenkins, is Miller's examination of how mistreatment in childhood can lead to depression, chronic illness and premature death in adulthood. Unable to express anger and hatred toward abusive parents, children become adults who are unwilling to do so because, Miller explains, they are bound by the societal imperative to forgive, derived from the Fourth Commandment -- "honor thy father and thy mother." Miller writes, "Forgiveness has never had a healing effect," but with the help of an "enlightened witness" (a "non-neutral" therapist, for example), traumatized adults can reject the Fourth Commandment, acknowledge their true feelings about their abusers and begin to overcome the debilitating physical illnesses that plague them.

Psychoanalysts on the other side of the therapeutic fence prefer the forgive-to-heal approach. But Miller argues that such preference simply proves how deeply rooted adherence to the Fourth Commandment is: Therapists' loyalties to their own flawed parents keep them from effectively treating their patients.

Using patient anecdotes and the tragic biographies of writers such as Dostoyevsky and Virginia Woolf, Miller writes so convincingly of truth-telling as a matter of life and death that her criticism of the Fourth Commandment feels needlessly provocative. This is one central weakness in an otherwise strong clarion call on behalf of child-abuse victims.

The Will to Live

On March 11, 2001, Gail Griffith's 17-year-old son, Will, took an overdose of his antidepressant medication that left him comatose for 48 hours. He became one of the approximately 2,000 Americans between ages 13 and 18 who attempted suicide that day. Griffith chronicles her son's journey back to a renewed interest in life in Will's Choice: A Suicidal Teen, a Desperate Mother, and a Chronicle of Recovery (HarperCollins, $24.95).

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