Everywhere we turn, we learn grim news about the state of our natural environment. Climate scientists tell us that we now have fewer than 10 years to change the course of the climate crisis. And so, we live eco-friendly lives and engage in environmental activism as best we can. But what does this mean when it comes to raising our children?
An ongoing journey
Raising eco-conscious children is more than simply adopting eco-friendly habits or having children learn about the environment in school. It’s about raising a generation that cares about the planet and will act to respect it, protect it, and fight for it. It’s a way of life, making intentional decisions and having conversations on a regular basis. And thankfully, it’s something that we as parents can help foster in our day-to-day lives.
Sarah Robertson-Barnes is a mum of two boys (ages seven and eight) living in the suburbs of Toronto. She is the founder of Sustainable in the Suburbs, a Zero Waste education and consulting business and blog. With her family, she prioritizes second-hand items first, unpackaged and local food, active transportation, and spending time in nature.
For Robertson-Barnes, raising eco-conscious children “means seeing how everything is connected to nature, understanding natural processes (like the water cycle and photosynthesis), and understanding how systems work (such as supply chains, labour, where food comes from) and the interconnectedness of it all.”
Environmentalist, scientist, and mother Marianne Ariganello is a member of the Ottawa South Eco-Action Network (OSEAN), as well as an organizer for the climate action-focused For Our Kids Ottawa Community. To her, raising eco-conscious kids “means teaching them that the choices they make in their life have a direct effect on the environment; making them aware of the interactions between nature and the environment; teaching them that we need to protect the environment and nature and not take it for granted.”
Parenting is a journey that constantly changes as we adapt to our child’s needs during different stages of life. Here are some tips for the different ages and stages.
Babies: build your foundation
Planning to welcome your baby is an exciting time! This is your chance to choose minimal and eco-friendly options from the beginning. If you’re having a baby shower, this is a great time to let your wishes be known to others. Some examples include
- using cloth diapers and wipes
- choosing second-hand baby items, when safe and appropriate (always research for recalls)
- opting for the essentials only, rather than unneeded items
- asking for services rather than “things” when gifts are offered, such as a postpartum doula
Miriam Rabkin, who works in international development, is founder of the Facebook group Parents for the Planet Action Group and mother to a young toddler daughter. “Right now, it’s been about cloth diapering, using towelettes as wet wipes, reducing plastic, and feeding her healthy, organic food,” she says.
“But as she grows older, I want to teach her the value of each item she uses (and reuses) … I want her to feel connected to the earth and to treasure all animals and plants and how they are treated.”
Toddlers: leading by example
At this age, children are already watching us and learning from what we do. This is where normalizing actions such as living low-waste come into play. For example, my toddler son knows that our waste is divided into several containers: compost, recycling, and a small wastebasket—and he delights in helping, like bringing the cardboard toilet paper tubes to the recycling bin. He knows that when we leave to go to the store, we bring our cloth bags.
“So much of eco-consciousness, like most things in parenting, is modelling,” says Ariganello. “When your children see you do things, they think that is what people should be doing, so they tend to do it too. You are the curriculum, so let them see you be an environmentalist.”
Children: friends, school, and beyond
When kids start school, they’re exposed to many different families and different lifestyles. Is it possible to continue your eco-friendly initiative around other families who may not have similar styles? Yes, says Robertson-Barnes; however, there’s some give and take.
For example, when she throws birthday parties, she creates low-waste, nonplastic goodie bags (think: bulk candy). But when her boys go to friends’ parties, she lets them make their own decisions about accepting or refusing goodie bags. “They always take them!” she laughs. “Our job as their parents is to give them the tools and knowledge to make their own decisions as they get older, and I have faith they’ll begin to refuse those things on their own.”
I asked Robertson-Barnes if her children ever ask why other families don’t live the same way they do. “Yes, but I think this is true of all parenting,” she explains. “Every family lives in a different way, whether that be cultural or religious traditions, lifestyle, what have you. We explain that we do ABC and other families do XYZ, and both are valid. There are all kinds of different ways to live, and it’s wonderful to learn from each other.”
Teenagers: conversations about independence
Teenagers may wish to try on various identities, push back against society or their families, and find their voices. A recent UK report, for example, noted that nearly half of all vegans there are young people—aged 15 to 34. Of course, young people—notably Greta Thunberg—have been the driving force behind the global climate protests.
As with any age, with teenagers it’s important to help maintain that active and honest dialogue and to step in where needed. For example, if your teen wants to adopt a plant-based diet, a visit to a health care professional would be helpful to ensure they’ll still be meeting all nutritional requirements. You may wish to try some new recipes as a family and help with grocery shopping and meal planning.
Of course, it could go the other way. For Robertson-Barnes (whose family is vegetarian) she laughs, “If the worst my boys do to rebel is eat burgers in single-use plastic, that’s okay!”
You’re not alone
It may sometimes feel like those around you don’t have the same environmental values, but please know that you’re not alone! Look for groups—online or in person—that can offer encouragement, tips, and support. Parents for the Planet is one such group.
“Find parents and friends who have similar values as you,” says Ariganello. “It makes it easier, and you can inspire each other to continue raising amazing children that love the environment and want to protect it.”
Robertson-Barnes suggests involving children in eco-friendly decisions whenever possible. “Do a waste audit: keep a tally of everything that goes into the trash and recycling in one week, then sit down and talk about it. Brainstorm how you could reduce two or three items and begin there.
“School lunches are another great place to start, as it gives kids some ownership into the process,” she adds. “Brainstorm package-free snacks you could include, such as bulk pretzels, dried fruit, fruits and veggies, and baked goods. Have them help plan meals to avoid food waste. Take them shopping with you and talk about how food doesn’t really come from the grocery store.”
For quick reference, check out these 17 kid-friendly eco tips.
Research has shown that being in nature has endless benefits for children and adults alike: it may help with academic performance, attention, stress and fatigue, resilience, focus, social interactions, and overall mental health. Recent studies have also shown that a healthy, positive relationship with nature in childhood helps reinforce a love for nature in adulthood—along with strong environmental values.
Consider the following ideas.
- Create a backyard garden—or even a container balcony garden.
- Do a nature scavenger hunt.
- Go on a picnic.
- Take a hike, or walk in the woods.
- Visit the beach and explore tide pools.
- Go berry picking.
- Engage in winter activities like snowshoeing or tobogganing.
- Go puddle jumping.
- Preserve and press flowers and leaves.
- Make a fairy house.
- Go stargazing.
- Camp in your backyard.
Be kind to yourself
“There’s no such thing as perfect,” says Robertson-Barnes. “Make changes that are sustainable for your family, budget, time, and individual circumstances.”
“Look at where you’re at, what makes you most concerned, or what you’re most passionate about,” says Rabkin. “Some parents are more about mobilizing, writing their MPs, or meeting with them; others go vegan and encourage those around them to reduce their meat products; some are concerned with zero waste or reusing/fixing their electronics. Whatever works for you, stresses you the least, start there.”
What about eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety and ecological grief are becoming increasingly common in children, and it’s not surprising. These can be very normal, and expected human reactions to the state of the natural world—climate scientists themselves are struggling with the very same feelings. To help guide your children (and yourselves), consider these suggestions.
- Acknowledge feelings and emotions as real and valid.
- Encourage open dialogue.
- Engage in meaningful positive action and activism.
- Surround yourself with other people and groups making a positive difference.
- Reach out to mental health professionals.
COVID-19 and the planet
“While this COVID virus has been, and is, devastating, it is also teaching us a different way of living,” explains Miriam Rabkin, mother and founder of Parents for the Planet Action Group.
“We’re slowing down, and very quickly our planet is regenerating. I truly hope governments seize this opportunity to do things differently moving forward—yes, we will need to boost our economy, but now’s the time to go green and to look at the economy through a true climate lens. … And the more of us who let our leaders know this matters to us, be they municipal, provincial, or federal, the more likely we are to have a safer future for our kids.”
Leah Payne is a writer, editor, and eco influencer (leahstellapayne.com; instagram.com/leahstellapayne). She’s also mother to a busy toddler.
This article was originally published in the August 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title “Growing Up Green.”