Preparing Kids for Sustainable Changes

Sustainability measures do not always involve unpleasant or sensitive topics–my old standby anecdotal environmental gesture, composting, is a great example–but sometimes trying to live a more sustainable life means changing diet (possibly incorporating a different range of types of meats and vegetables, eating more unusual parts of animals, restricting consumption of junk food), reducing the amount of stuff in a household, moving to a smaller house (or a bigger property), etc.

In my last post, I talked about eating rabbit and some of the various conversations that has sparked in my life. I also touched on how we can talk about decisions such as eating rabbit (instead of chicken, if chicken is normally a part of our diets and rabbit isn’t) with children.

In this post, I will outline ways to talk to children about three lifestyle changes relating to sustainability. The biggest thing to remember is that you should believe in your decisions. Bringing sustainability issues to the attention of children can help them become more empathetic and sensitive not only to the environment but also to other people. I have consistently found that children are more open to new ideas or to changes than they are often given credit for; a lot of it seems to depend on how you break the “news.” If you believe in what you’re doing and you believe it is a positive step, your children will probably come to agree with you.

It is important though to see their side of things, too. Children may be facing pressure at school from peers to do things like buy certain clothes or bring certain foods to lunch. If you decide to enforce household-wide rules about consumption habits that may prevent this sort of thing, you should be prepared to support your child in some way and/or make small concessions occasionally.

Not buying stuff (Minimalism)

Okay, minimalism is not just not buying stuff. That said, that may be how it appears to kids. Especially if you start your journey into minimalism by throwing out (or giving away, donating, etc…) their stuff. A few strategies:

  • Even if it is the 5 million plastic cows scattered in your kids’ rooms that really bothers you most, start with your own stuff and make your reductions the most visible.
  • Remember why you’re doing this and make it explicit to your kids. Explain that you want to have fewer things, maybe so that you can spend more time with your kids instead of cleaning up after them, or so that you can move to a smaller house and have more money to spend on vacations.
  • Instead of taking a top-down approach, try making a communal spot for donations. You might be surprised what your kids feel they can do without! Of course it’s a good idea to maintain veto power, but including them in the process may make it more agreeable.
  • Talk about where things go. Try to find good homes for as much of the stuff you get rid of. In the process, you may be able to expose your kids to people who have a genuine need for the stuff that is, to you, excess.
  • Talk about where things come from, how things are made. Children may appreciate their stuff more when they realize how really complicated even commonplace battery-operated stuff is.

Eating local/changing diet

Diet is something we typically have a lot of control over, though it may not feel that way. Eating “real food”–whole foods, natural ingredients produced with as little chemical use as possible, in season and minimally processed–is an important habit to adopt. Depending on your current habits, though, this may take a lot of adjustment! Before you decide to make an extreme diet change, especially with kids involved, inventory what you currently eat. What would you really miss? What would make the biggest difference?

In 2012, one of the aspects of my senior thesis project for my undergraduate degree was raising and learning to slaughter chickens and rabbits. As a lifelong omnivore, I wanted to have personal understanding of this process that I had never before taken part in, but had profited from. You may just be contemplating buying more organic food, but whatever your personal step is, kids are capable of getting involved.

  • Do it gradually. Talk about your thought process in age-appropriate conversation before you really start changing things. Two year olds may not need to be fully informed about the horrors of factory farming, but 12 year olds are more than capable of understanding those ideas. Understanding the philosophical backdrop may make kids more into the idea of giving up certain foods.
  • Replace, don’t just take away. Make it clear that kids won’t have “nothing to eat”–instead of soda, you could try getting a home-carbonator and making fizzy fruit beverages; instead of fruit gushers maybe give kids real fruit.
  • Make concessions. Not only are you more likely to win kids over with a gradual switch, but you’re more likely to stick with a new diet if you don’t make really dramatic changes. Let’s say you’re trying to reduce your household consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)–maybe forbid gushers at home, but still allow your kids gushers in packed lunch.
  • Give kids ownership of these ideas. This shouldn’t be about you trying to make life difficult, this should be about all of us trying to do what is right. Kids are often quite flexible and ready to adapt new ideas and values. Try planting a garden with their help (or with older kids, letting them do a lot of that on their own). I never ate eggplant until I grew some myself (now I love it). If you don’t have room for a garden, try container gardening, or find another part of the process kids can “own.” Many love cooking/baking and may be willing to help make family meals. Or, they may get excited about getting to choose which vegetables you buy at the farmer’s market. Whatever works.

One final note: if you’re going to start family dinners (which is a great idea), try to make them as pleasant as possible. Be clear about rules and enforce them from day 1 (i.e. if you say no one gets up from the table without asking permission, there needs to be a reaction/consequence to getting up without asking). Take interest in your children’s days and encourage both thoughtful questions and respectful listening. When in doubt about what to talk about, consider talking about the food (especially if kids had any role in the process–if one sibling was involved but not the other, for example, you could ask this child to explain his or her role to the other).

With young kids, food is a great opportunity to talk about the senses (What do you taste? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you feel?) and numbers and quantity (How many carrot sticks? Is there more applesauce than yogurt? How can you tell?). As they get older, this can expand into a conversation about origins (Where do you think this comes from? How does this grow? What did we have to do with it before we ate it?). Later, the dialog can be a launch point to talk about human and animal rights (Who worked to make this possible? What do you think the people picking this were paid? What are “fair” labor conditions?).

Reducing screen time & energy consumption

While you may be sick of staring at a computer from doing it at work all day, kids may see screens as purely vehicles of entertainment. Trying to reduce screen time can be a tough challenge, especially if kids are addicted, but learning how to defeat boredom creatively is a great skill.

  • Make sure there are other options. Do not just take away the TV, and the iPad, and the computer in one fell swoop and then expect kids to be cheerful about it. For young kids, have plenty of craft supplies on hand. This may go against minimalism goals a bit, but consider keeping stuff like old sheets and really worn-out clothes to let kids do whatever they want with these materials. When I was young, one of my favorite “toys” was an old multicolored sheet. That sheet was everything from a picnic blanket to a tent to a toga-like dress. The best thing was that it didn’t matter what I did to it–it was pretty hideous and no one cared.
  • Produce limits before bans. Instead of saying “no TV,” try setting a time when kids can watch TV. In the household here, the kids used to demand TV as soon as I brought them home from school. I started saying they couldn’t watch anything until 6:00, and now they often forget about it by the time 6:00 rolls around. Likewise, I don’t let them use the kid-iPad when they’re at home all day on Wednesdays except for the 15 minutes I’m preparing lunch. By being firm and consistent about these rules, they’re no longer a struggle.
  • Alternatively, consider a “screen vacation”–make it a challenge to see if kids can really truly not use whatever screens are a problem (except for homework, if necessary). Some kids may find it more fun to have a challenge in front of them than to have set limitations.
  • Unlike food issues, talking about energy consumption can be super abstract. Try doing research about energy consumption together, or share energy bills with kids and explain what the numbers mean. Whenever I was home when “the BGE guy” (our meter reader from the gas and electric company) came to the house, I used to go outside and read the meter with him. I was curious about the bizarre device and although the numbers didn’t mean much to me, having awareness that the reading was different every month did make me curious about what was causing those differences–heating? cooking at home more? leaving lights on by accident? being able to leave lights turned off more on long summer days?
  • Make kids deal with boredom. I think a lot of parents really fear their kids saying, “I’m bored!” and I don’t think there’s any reason that should be alarming. We all get bored sometimes, and it’s something we need to learn to conquer. The more permissive you can be, the better–just as it is important to teach kids how to be neat and keep themselves tidy, it’s also important for them to have spaces to be messy, to get dirty. Additionally, give it time. Try giving kids a few ideas of what they could do instead of setting them up with an activity right away. Offer open-ended activities like access to blank paper, working musical instruments, a sandbox (or for a neater alternative, a sandbox filled with dry rice!) and some buckets and shovels.

This is the direct result of bored kids getting creative with the materials at hand–sticks, grass, and an old wooden duck.

Links to check out

Story of Stuff

How Stuff is Made

Carbon Footprint Calculator (The Nature Conservancy – for people in US)

Environmental Footprint (WWF)

Ecological Footprint (Center for Sustainable Economy – for people in UK)

Zen Habits

Becoming Minimalist


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