10 Ways to Raise an Environmentalist

There’s no arguing that having a child is not the most environmentally sustainable thing to do. When I became a mother, it was important to me to maintain the integrity of my low-impact lifestyle and find ways to offset the carbon footprint of adding another human to the planet. My son is now six. Parenting him, like for so many, makes life personally sustainable and there is no underestimating the value in that choice. It’s also a daily opportunity to choose to live in harmony with the Earth with the compounded influence of teaching another person this value. Parenting is activism insofar as activism is making the world better.

Below are some suggestions that I use to raise my environmentalist. I would love to hear yours in the comments below!

1. Start from the beginning.

When I was pregnant, people began telling me what items I needed. Specific brands of bottles and lotions and wipe warmers. There are a sea of baby products out there, but before you buy them, consider how much use they’ll get. That is, very little. What a new parent needs the most is community. Instead of creating a baby registry, suggest that friends bring a meal by in those early days. You’ll cherish the adult conversation in between changing poopy diapers.

There are untold benefits from breastfeeding, but one that doesn’t get enough attention is the benefit to the environment. No plastic bottles, no empty formula containers, no transportation waste. There are challenges, but if you need that extra incentive to surmount them, whether that means persisting after a bout of mastitis or finding the right solution to low milk supply, consider the greater impact you’re having on the planet when you make your choice.

Cloth diapering is another great way to keep your infant’s bottom cared for while keeping disposable diapers out of landfills. Cloth diapers are better for your child’s skin, encourage earlier toilet use, and are easier on your pocketbook. We got ours used and I felt good about my baby’s environmental footprint from the get-go!

2. Say yes to hand-me-downs.

Surely, there are enough baby clothes and toys on the planet that there is no need to produce any more. And kids are growing so fast that, for the most part, they outgrow their things faster than they ruin them! There are great second-hand stores for children in Los Angeles, where I live. If you live someplace with less selection, there are also online options like thredup.com. Americans dump 10.5 million tons/year of textile waste into landfills! Yikes! So say yes when a friend offers you her child’s cast-offs rather than buying new. And pass yours on to the younger kid down the street rather than filling up yet another trash bag!

3. Nature is a playground.

It used to be that families stayed in the same communities for generations. But in these transient times, our children are often raised in places that parents only have a recent connection to. That means we have to work harder to build a sense of community for our children and a sense of connection to geographical location, the actual land. I live in an apartment and have virtually no yard, but my son and I take part in urban forestry volunteer days. He knows just where the trees he has planted are in the city and takes pride in caring for them. He knows the hiking trails in LA’s Griffith Park as if they were in fact part of his yard. And we do have a small vegetable garden and compost bins that we care for together every day. Inspecting the dirt or climbing a tree in lieu of sitting inside with a pile of toys is more interesting, less expensive and builds a fascination with the natural world that will translate into a child’s desire to protect it! Wherever you live, seek out ways to fill your time with outdoor activities and cultivate ways to take ownership of the land and water around you!

4. Use your library card.

Libraries provide an unlimited flow of books! My son’s recent favorites are series about living off the land: Little House on the Prairie and My Side of the Mountain. He likes to imagine how Pa Ingalls and Sam Gribley would fare in modern times. Often libraries have free programs for children as well! From story hours to puppet shows to robotics classes, libraries have been an endless source of entertainment for us and mean we can read infinite books without having more slain trees on our conscience.

5. Party for the planet.

Birthday parties have the potential to be waste maelstroms. But it doesn’t have to be that way! You don’t have to get lots of disposable plastic utensils and give out dollar store favors. You just don’t. In years past we’ve asked guests to bring their own plates and let them wash them before they go. For my son’s sixth party we gave out composting worms as a party favor in worm houses built in recycled soda bottles. It was more memorable than yet another plastic bracelet and bottle of bubbles. Another year, I made a Peter Pan costume out of an old green T-shirt and we played games like walking the plank on a wood board I had and mermaid lagoon races with pillow cases. There are plenty of ways to create entertainment from using what you have. If you don’t feel like going the “please no gifts” route, there are other options too. One year we suggested guests bring something they owned that they were ready to pass on. The website: www.Echoage.com  makes it easy for your child to make a donation with their birthday money and still have some to put toward a meaningful item. Parties are about joyful times with friends. We can lose sight of that in searching for the perfect centerpiece and piñata, but truly the matching cups and plates will be forgotten by the time the trash is taken away!

6. Work with what you’ve got.

Learning is fun and when you’re a new being to this world, everything is a learning opportunity! Instead of toys, opt for activities that build skills and understanding. We have a piano that is good for hours of play every day. Cooking is a science experiment, a way to make a mess and, it just so happens, a necessity to feed yourself! Bath toys can be made of used plastic bottles. Wine corks are building supplies. A pine cone can be made into art! People and animals can teach infinitely more than an iPad app and time together is the best plaything of all.

7. Preach but don’t be preachy.

Children are naturally predisposed to caring about all living beings so when you explain to them that we need to protect the rainforest because orangutans live there or we don’t eat fish because of the harm to the ocean, it’s an easy connection for a kid to make. Kids aren’t jaded so they take these issues seriously and are idealistic enough to try to help! If I stopped people in the grocery store to explain to them why peanut butter with palm oil in it is a poor choice for the planet, they might think I’m a hyper-righteous snob. But when a small child can explain an issue, it warrants a quick ethical check-in. It’s our job as grown-ups to take care of children so when they ask us to include the planet in that care, it has a certain moral cache. There’s a story about South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis who didn’t concern himself with climate change until his son presented a compelling argument. Children have influence so, by all means, arm your child with the facts and others will listen. Study the issues together. Expose them to the truth about our planet’s fragility and let their genuine compassion take over.

8. Seek out your peeps.

When your kid’s identity as an environmentalist starts to take shape, they’re likely to become increasingly aware that not everyone else shares their concerns. This has caused the same frustration for my son as it has for me. “Why don’t they care, Mama?!?!?” he has asked of me. He has the same longing for community that anyone does and finding just a few friends who “get it” gives him a sense of camaraderie, support and relief. For me, just one parent friend who empathizes when I don’t want to go to a water park in a drought or who will take the metro together to the museum can get me through a tough week! Find your people! Meetup.com or local Yahoo groups (Peachhead in Los Angeles) have served me well. Often our environmentalist friends come from my own involvement in activism or volunteering with local gardening or wildlife organizations. I expect this point to become more important as my son’s activism becomes more encompassing. While he is capable of explaining over and over why he refused that balloon or doesn’t have packaged food in his lunchbox, it’s really nice to have a buddy who already understands.

9. Come out as an environmentalist.

If you’re trying to raise your child along environmental principles, eventually your ideals may be challenged by those around you. For me, this has been the trickiest part of raising an environmentalist. I have gently asked family members not to buy gifts for my child. It doesn’t always compute because giving gifts is a way we give love in our culture. But it’s worth the discussion! The gift of time together and shared experiences is ever more valuable and opening up this conversation can have a powerful impact on renegotiating priorities as an extended family! So come out to your family! It may take a little while before the fallout settles, but it’s likely to settle into a more rewarding relationship!

10. Live authentically.

Whenever my partner and I discuss how to be better parents, it concludes with him offering “We just need to be better people”. This is the unspoken gift that children give to us. For in order to model behavior for them, we need to embody the values we wish to bequeath! So often I feel tempted to cheat on my intellectual beliefs. I want to justify driving to the grocery store because I’m tired even though it’s a reasonable walk, but my son points out that fossil fuels warm the planet and thus deters me. He is the one who keeps me in check and I feel pushed to walk my walk, or just walk to the store, because of him! So many other times, when I again feel enticed by something that doesn’t really bring me the lasting joy of integrity, I am now able to resist because of the lasting love I have for my child. Keeping my son always in mind reminds me of the import of my actions and, in fact, makes me a better person.

While these are 10 ways to start incorporating an appreciation for the environment into parenting, it is obviously not an exhaustive list. There are as many ways to do this as there are moments in the day. Making this choice as a parent is truly a matter of committing to a lifestyle. Kids are not good for the environment. But I am undoubtedly a better environmentalist because of my kid!

This article was written by Marissa Engel. Like her son’s Facebook page Mars Saves Earth if you’d like to keep up on what he’s up to!

Let’s start a conversation! Parents, please share your tips for other parents in the comments below!