Earth Day Every Day: Raising Eco-Conscious Kids

BlogHer Original Post

It is endlessly fascinating to me that the same children who will dig a salad dressing bottle out of the trash and scold me for forgetting to recycle it are often unable to turn off the light in a room when they're done. I mean, I would never have guessed these qualities to coexist in a reasonably bright child, but I am here to tell you that it's not only possible, it's pervasive.

Where we live in Georgia, the drought has been a huge topic of concern for the past year (maybe longer, but we've only been here a year). It's in the newspaper, it's on the television, and they talk about it at school. My children come home and ask me if I've considered getting a rain barrel. (I have.) They ask if I'm aware of the latest county water restrictions. (I am.) And then they get into the shower at night and see something shiny and when I knock on the door 10 minutes later to ask why they're not out yet, a sheepish voice calls out, "I haven't actually gotten clean yet."

Ah, kids. They're so ready and willing to take up the gauntlet for any cause, but they're still, after all, kids. Sometimes their ability to connect the dots leaves a little to be desired.

With Earth Day approaching (April 22nd -- mark your calendar!), many parents are wondering how to get their kids on the environmentally-conscious bandwagon. The truth is that most children are already much more aware of the fragility of our earth than most adults are. They're quick to remember that you shouldn't pick flowers along the hiking trail or that magazines go in the recycle bin... but they can't seem to remember to close the door behind them when the heat or air conditioning is running.

So how do we raise truly eco-conscious kids? How do we bridge the gap between Big Ideas and Everyday Green?

The answer is both obvious and annoying: It starts with hugging some trees, and ends with a whole lot of patience.

Okay, I'm joking about hugging trees. But this part is not a joke: Today's kids spend more time inside than their predecessors, and the more time they spend inside, the harder it is for them to connect with the world beyond four walls. Want a good reason or four to get your kids outside? For your consideration:

Quite simply, kids who spend all their time indoors don’t have much of a connection with the natural world, so the awareness that nature needs to be protected won’t come as easily. But this is possibly the most difficult opportunity for many parents to give their children. In this day and age, most parents believe that allowing children to explore nature unsupervised presents an inherent danger. Statistically, though, parents’ worst nightmares for their children are very unlikely to come true.

According to security expert Gavin de Becker, children are significantly more likely to die of a heart attack than to be abducted by a stranger. Therefore, letting the kids play outside is not only statistically safe, it will also benefit their health and give them a healthy reverence for nature in the process. Studies have shown that children who spend more time outdoors have lower rates of ADHD, better school performance, and less depression.

A kid who spends her afternoons digging around in the backyard is going to have an easier time understanding why deforestation is a bad thing. (And that's aside from all the health benefits of outdoor play.) And not surprisingly, a kid whose parents also spend time outside is more likely to value the great outdoors, too. Don't just boot them out to play -- join them!

Talk to your kids about the choices you make, too. You can't expect a toddler to understand why you might not want to buy strawberries in January, but even very young children can appreciate the difference between local fruit purchased in-season and something that was flown halfway around the world to get to you, and why that might be something you should be concerned about.

Making a habit of explaining yourself to your children serves a dual purpose: First, it holds you accountable for your own choices (oh, the humanity of little external consciences!), and second, it teaches your kids what you hold important and why. If you find yourself explaining that you couldn't be bothered to seek out the more earth-friendly products or that you don't have time to think about these things, well, maybe those hopeful little faces will inspire you to change your ways....

As for the lights left on and the too-long showers? They're not necessarily failures, they're just evidence of kids still being kids. They're learning opportunities, too. Look to creative solutions if these little mindless bits of wasteful behavior persist -- tax them for lights left on, either in money or (our favorite currency 'round here) chores, for example. While my children speak cold, hard cash fluently, I tired of charging them over the lights issue, and was looking for a way to connect it back to the concept of taking care of the earth, so now leaving the lights on may result in you owing me twenty minutes of weeding.

Above all, remember that it's a process. If it sounds overwhelming, start out with the Earth Day Kids' Page and brainstorm with your kids about how you can make small but important changes as a family. You may be surprised to discover that it's easier than you think to be more mindful of our earth's resources.

(Well, except for the shower thing. You're probably just going to have to buy a shower timer. Sorry.)

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir also blogs at Woulda Coulda Shoulda and Want Not.

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