5 Ways to Be a Green Parent

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Nature

credit: K Martinko -- Let them go!

Before some of you lovely commenters rush to point out the fact that having kids is inherently anti-green, can we please agree to ignore that for now? Most people have kids, including myself, like it or not. While I was not yet as eco-minded while deciding about offspring as I am today, the best I can do at this point is to raise my little people to be environmentally conscious individuals who love and care for the Earth. Here is what I’m doing to be the best ‘green’ parent I can be. I have divided my approach into several broad categories.

A child must love the natural world in order to want to protect it later in life. The most realistic way to promote this love is to spend time outside, which is why my kids have to play in the yard for hours each day, rain or shine or snow storm. There’s nothing fancy about our yard, though it does have nice trees and lots of overgrown gardens. They’ve got a treehouse from which to watch the world go by. They have a bug-catcher container in which to store (temporarily) critters that they find. They have a shovel, a sandbox, and a few designated patches of dirt in which to dig deep holes. Basically, they’re free to do whatever they want out there; they just have to put in the time. On weekends, when my husband and I are free, we plan fancier outings. We go tenting and canoe-tripping a couple times each summer, or visit grandparents on a lake. We go to the beach on Lake Huron, close to where we live. We go on family bike rides, picnics, and hikes. We’re not an overly outdoorsy family, but we make it a part of everyday life. I highly recommend “The Big Book of Nature Activities” by Jacob Rodenburg and Drew Monkman and Richard Louv’s “Vitamin N” for fun, practical ideas on how to get kids outside and engaging with their surroundings. The more time they spend, the easier it gets.

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Food

credit: K Martinko

Food plays a huge role in environmentalism, as it represents a significant portion of one’s carbon footprint. One of the most important things a parent can do, I think, is to teach a child to love food. In other words, please train your kid to eat everything. (How to do this is a post unto itself, but I’ll sum it up in one sentence: Expect no less.) A child who enjoys vegetables is a child whose diet can be supplied by a local farmers’ market or a CSA share or a homegrown garden, a diet that does not rely on heavily processed, over-packaged, store-bought fake food like fish sticks, bear paws, and yogurt pouches. Talk to your kids about food waste and the importance of prioritizing the purchase of ‘ugly’ fruits and vegetables. Talk about cooking with what’s going bad, what’s in season, what’s on hand. And teach that kid how to cook, because home cooking, in my opinion, is the closest thing to a magic bullet solution to everything that’s wrong with our world. (More on that in a future post.) Read: 6 ways to start teaching your kid how to cook Set your kids free in the kitchen, knives and all How do you teach kids to love vegetables?

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Stuff

credit: Caroline -- Traffic jam

Get rid of the stuff. More toys and more clothes will only create more work for parents and kids, not to mention debt. Break away from the traditional birthday party model where every guest brings a gift; suggest cash instead, or skip presents altogether. Buy fewer, but better toys. Discuss the material and quality of construction with your kids; explain why plastic isn’t so great once it breaks and cannot be recycled. (You know, like Star Wars-style retractable glowing plastic light sabers, coveted in this household. They’re not keen on my alternative suggestion: a flashlight mounted inside a painted paper towel tube.) Fewer toys in the house will make a kid more inclined to play outside. Encourage the use of natural materials, such as sticks (a.k.a. swords or spears), snowballs, mud, and leaf piles. Let them get dirty. Get rid of the devices. It sounds heretical, but I’ve done it and I know it works. We have no TV or iPad; the kids aren’t allowed to touch our phones, ever. Once a week they get a half-hour of Netflix on my laptop and that’s it. Sure, they howl and complain, but eventually they find something else to do.

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Work

credit: David D -- Girl washes the dishes

Work may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about green parenting, but it’s all connected. By expecting a child to work, it teaches them about the inner workings of a household and forces them to think about bigger issues that they would not otherwise. For example, a child should sort and take out the recycling each week, which gives him or her a first-hand encounter with the week’s detritus. That old plastic-cardboard wrapper in which a new toy arrived a few weeks ago? It’s still kicking around; imagine that! This chore forces a reckoning with one’s waste and gradually the value of zero-waste living will become evident. A child can take out the compost, learning how much of our food waste can be returned to earth. They should help dig out that compost and spread it on a garden in the springtime to really drive the point home. Our kids feed certain food scraps to backyard chickens, another valuable lesson in the cycle of life. Have a child assist with cleaning around the house. Teach them about non-toxic cleaners, how to make their own, and why this matters. Tidying up toys and folding laundry enforces the practical aspects of minimalism; they start to understand why we would want to buy less stuff once they have a stake in caring for it. (Just last night, one of my little ones sighed while folding, “The laundry never ends.” 1-0 for Mom!)

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Move

credit: Thierry Draus

Leave the car at home and make it a priority to bike or walk as many places as possible with your child. Mine still complain about this sometimes, but we continue to have conversations about the cost of gas and emissions and air pollution around schools, and how riding one’s bike – especially short distances – can make such a difference in the long run and boost personal health. Not least of all, it changes their own perceptions of distance and will, hopefully, inspire them to continue being cyclists for the rest of their lives. Every parent will have their own approach to teaching environmentalism, but I do believe that it’s through daily life lessons that a child will learn most effectively. What do you do to be a green parent?