I will admit to feeling more than a little apprehensive these past few months. If anything will make you more political, it’s becoming a parent. Suddenly I’m not just invested in decisions about my own life. I’m worried about a whole generation from now.
It’s hard to know where to start with affecting any change at all. We’ve been talking a lot in our house about love and letting the love inside our hearts be more powerful than other feelings. These are things my small children can understand.
But talking about the very real and very imminent threats to our environment is a little harder. How do I tell them that I’m worried for the earth they will inherit? How do I tell them that the planet they grow up on and pass on to their own children is less rich, less diverse, and less wild than the one I enjoyed when I was little? And do I tell them that it’s our fault?
There are hundreds of ways that we can affect positive change for the environment every day. But the single most important change we can affect as parents is the generation we raise. If we want to save the planet, we need to raise children who will speak up for it, take action, and stand against the destruction of natural resources.
Saving the planet isn’t going to be easy. Here are five ways parents can help:
Talk about feelings
It’s no secret that developing empathy starts at home, but have you ever thought of it as a skill that goes hand-in-hand with conservation?
Empathy begins before your child is even verbal. It might seem ridiculous to scoop your tantruming toddler off the floor and croon, “You are frustrated. I can tell how frustrated you are because you can’t have that fork. I get frustrated when I can’t have something that I want, too.” As strange as it may feel at first, naming emotions and relating these emotions to others, will become second nature to a child whose caregivers model empathy for him from an early age.
Empathy does not end with human interaction. It also extends to nature and the natural world. Humans, after all, are not the only living things with needs. Kids who practice empathy are more likely to perceive themselves as having positive connections with nature. They are also more likely to participate in nature-based activities and environmentally friendly practices.
Begin to build empathy from a young age by naming the emotions that your child is experiencing. As she grows older, get her thinking about how others are feeling, too. Kids can build empathy for nature and the environment through simple acts, like feeding birds, planting seeds, or picking up litter. Discussing the whys of these simple actions will drive home their importance.
Take your children outside to play
Over the past two years, the benefits of outdoor activity have become a regular part of the parenting conversation. The physical and mental benefits of outdoor play have been well-documented, and even health practitioners are becoming more and more likely to recommend time outdoors as a part of everyday physical and mental preventative healthcare.
But not much has been said about the way these experiences shape our children over the long term. The greater benefits to the community are less often discussed. Not surprisingly, kids who play outside regularly are more likely to become the environmental stewards of tomorrow.
The roots of emotional affinity are planted in childhood. You know how the smell of fresh baked cookies brings you straight back to playing with Legos on the floor of grandma’s kitchen? Or how the old dusty baseball diamond behind Town Hall still draws a nostalgic smile as you imagine tapping the bat on home plate one more time?
These memories stay with you because of their positive associations, and they evoke positive emotions long after they’re gone. By letting your kids experience nature, especially in its wild state, they naturally develop emotional connections with the natural environment.
You can make the impact even stronger by teaching your child about local ecology and wildlife. Kids exposed to wild settings through hiking, camping, and playing in the woods develop a deeper connection to nature than kids who play on playgrounds or parks. Take your children to the woods and let them run wild. Teach them about the plants and animals they see.
Kids who form an early emotional affinity for wildlife, nature, and outside recreation are more likely to grow into adults who exhibit environmentally-positive behaviors (like recycling and use of alternative energy) and are more likely to identify as conservationists. They grow into adults who are willing to spend time, energy, and even money to protect the natural world.
Recognize real science
From the youngest age, your children look up to you. You have a limited window during which they take your word as gospel. A tooth fairy that flies into rooms at night to replace baby teeth with hard cash? Yes. Vegetables that make you able to see at night? Sure. Mommies and daddies and everyone else all go to bed right now, too? Definitely.
While you still have their attention, make sure you impart some basic, important wisdom as well. For example, start here: climate change is real. Even if nothing changes, the planet is in big, big trouble. If you think your child is too young to learn about climate change, don’t worry. The conversation starts simply with science.
Teach your child to recognize and appreciate science. Reinforce the validity of real science. On a daily basis, this means talking about the science in our lives. You can read books about weather, explorers, or technology. Create a sense of reverence and respect when talking about science. Encourage questions about the natural world or scientific phenomena, and look up the answers together. As you do so, narrate the types of sources you’re seeking. Talk about how to decide if a source is valid or not.
Climate change scientists insist on the importance of presenting facts to young children in an age-appropriate way, while taking special care to do so without being too pessimistic. Michael Mann, climate scientist and author of the 2012 book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”, discussed how he talks to his daughter about climate change with The Yale Forum.
Mann proposed that “we must gradually introduce our children to the natural world and the environment, and the threats to it that currently exist because of what we are doing. But we must provide hope and optimism, make sure they can envision a brighter future.”
Envisioning that brighter future starts with a realistic idea of what we’re up against.
Use and discuss logical consequences
It’s important to make connections between our actions and the results, both immediate and long term. An easy way to start making these connections with your child is to use logical consequences in your home.
Here’s how it works. Did your child draw on the walls? Instead of putting her in timeout, try telling her that she’s no longer allowed to use her art supplies without a grown-up until she earns back your trust. This is not a punishment. It’s the logical consequence of her choice to misuse her crayons.
It works both ways. Did your child do a faster than usual job of cleaning up toys tonight? Tell her that with the time saved by cleaning so quickly, she can choose an extra story before bed. She will learn that when she takes care of her responsibilities without dragging her feet, she has more time to do the things she enjoys. Connecting actions and consequences, both good and bad, is important if we want to raise kids who will think about long term consequences.
At the same time, teach kids how to affect positive changes in their immediate environment. Pick up litter, plant a tree, grow your own food, or start practicing some small hikes to build up to a big one. When children are empowered to take action on behalf of the environment and understand the power of their actions, they are more likely to participate – and continue participating – in those pro-environmental behaviors.
On the other hand, children who aren’t educated about their environment are more likely to exploit it.
Get rid of stuff
We are a nation of consumers. It’s easy to get caught up in the race to have the best things, the biggest things, the most things. Consumption fuels industry, and the industry in our world is almost maxed out. Do your part to curb consumption and live more sustainably by opting out of the consumer race.
Kids aren’t immune to consumerism. In fact, advertising companies target them in particular. The youth-marketing industry is a multi-billion dollar market. The popular documentary, “Consuming Kids: The Commercialization of Childhood”, claims, American children now influence an estimated 700 billion dollars in annual consumer spending.
By purging unnecessary belongings, raising kids who are grateful, and modeling that people and experiences matter more than material things, we can raise kids who don’t buy into the standard consumer dialogue.
Raise a savvy consumer who recognizes the ways in which he’s being targeted by advertisement. Inspire conversations about the difference between wants and needs. Talk to family members about limiting the amount of things that comes into your house for birthdays or holidays. Instead of giving out flimsy plastic favors at a birthday party, give out seed packs or host a book exchange.
Kids who learn to be media-smart will be less likely to fall into the consumer trap. Instead, teach them to fix things that are broken, to pass on items that they no longer use, to accept hand-me-downs from others, and to never, ever judge their worth or someone else’s based on material belongings.
The world we will pass on to our children isn’t the one we grew up with. If we want to take responsibility for that, we need to give our kids the tools they’ll need to affect the change we haven’t.