How I'm Trying to Raise Eco-Minded Children

Small daily actions can be effective teaching tools.

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little boy peels carrots
Helping in the kitchen is a good way to learn about where food comes from.

@smgu3 via Twenty20 

Raising kids is hard work, but raising them to be environmentally concerned is even harder, especially in a society that celebrates consumerism as recklessly as ours. There are things I do every day to teach them and to pass on the principles I embrace in my own life, and hopefully these lessons will influence their adulthoods. Some are small lessons, while others revolve around bigger conversations, but all are important.

1. Knowing Their Food

I don't want my kids to think that food miraculously appears in a supermarket. I want them to have an awareness of where food comes from, what goes into growing and raising it, and how precious it is. So we pick fruit together each summer, spending hours in the blazing sun so that we'll have a supply of jam and frozen fruit. We buy meat from farmers we know personally, whose farms and animals we've visited. We pick up a CSA vegetable box weekly that they help me to pack, prep, and put away. And they help cook, which teaches them how to use whole ingredients in delicious ways and liberates them from a future dominated by prepackaged unhealthy meals.

2. Understanding Waste

The children are responsible for taking out the kitchen recycling and compost bins once they're full. The recycling gets sorted in the garage and set out on the curb biweekly, and the kitchen scraps go into a large composter in the garden. They do this year-round, even in the cold Canadian winter, and have complained about the frequency with which the bins fill up. This leads to discussions about the importance of minimizing recyclable waste before we bring it into the home, and how composting is a fabulous way to deal with biodegradable waste, without adding to landfill.

3. Helping with Laundry

When you have to hang out every article of clothing to dry, you develop an appreciation for how much work goes into doing laundry – and a realization that certain items could be worn a few more times before washing. I get the kids to hang clothes on drying racks year-round (I try to avoid using the dryer), and then they fold and put them away for the whole family. We've talked about how important it is to analyze clothes at the end of the day and assess whether or not something truly needs to be cleaned. 

4. Buying Secondhand Clothes

Nearly everything my kids and I wear is secondhand. I buy it at a number of thrift stores in the area or get hand-me-downs from friends whose children are older than mine. When they complain about it (which is rare), I explain that they grow fast and are extremely hard on their clothes, with all their outdoor play, and that our money is better spent on travel and other fun experiences than on fashion. I also point out that, because other people like to shop so much, thrift stores are full of truly great finds that help the planet and save us significant amounts of money.

5. Choosing Experiences over Things

My son still talks about his birthday several years ago, when we went to Canada's Wonderland (an amusement park) instead of giving him a physical gift. Even though he's forgotten most of the presents he's received for birthdays and holidays since then, the memory of that day is as clear as ever. I let my kids choose what they'd like, but I do encourage them to consider experiences over things. Not only does it create lasting memories, but it reduces clutter in the home. 

6. Talking About Plastic

Plastic avoidance is an important environmental topic that's easier for kids to grasp than, say, greenhouse gas emissions. There are little daily actions they can take to make a difference. We talk about shopping decisions, and how choosing different kinds of packaging can help; I encourage them to avoid straws, bags, disposable water bottles, and other single-use products. I recently showed them The Story of Stuff's documentary on plastic production and it was a real eye-opener for them, as they hadn't ever seen film footage of polluted, clogged waterways in parts of Asia and Africa. There have been many questions since then. 

7. Spending Time Outside

My goal is to maximize the amount of time the kids spend outside every day, whether it's playing in the backyard, riding their bikes around town, walking to do errands, camping or cross-country skiing on weekends, eating meals on the deck, or visiting grandparents in the forest. This requires a lot of effort on my part, and active participation in order to model how I want them to spend their days, but I do it willingly. Not everyone will share my view, but I believe that my children will be better, stronger, and more compassionate adults if they possess a deep love and appreciation for the natural world – and the easiest way to develop that is through the quantity of time spent in it.

No doubt there are other ways to educate one's children in environmental matters, but this is what I choose to do with mine. I'm curious to hear what approaches other parents take, so feel free to share comments below.