Parenting is not an easy job – combine that with trying to live sustainably and it becomes a whole lot more interesting – but all the more rewarding. So, of course I am maybe what you would call a “tree-hugging dirt worshipper,” and therefore, am super keen on the environment, good, clean food, producing resources rather than consuming them and educating my children on how to live gracefully on this grand planet of ours.
We do not have a television, we are vegetarian, we grow our own food and frequent the farmers’ market, we use cloth nappies and we use our vehicle as little as possible. Nevertheless, the choices that we make to live more sustainably are never straightforward nor do they come with great ease, but they do make an everlasting impact on our children. However, we are not perfect and making the best, sustainable decisions all of the time is impossible; unfortunately, our children remember those decisions too.
Take for instance, the ever-present burden of consumerism. I am sure that this is an area that all parents struggle with. I must admit, the lack of a television does help to lessen the “I wants,” but heavy marketing aimed at children is everywhere. A simple trip down the grocery store aisle, supposed to be full of food, is laden with colourful lollies and even toys. Maybe I am lucky that my child accepts the fact that we cannot get treats every time we go to the store so that when she does get a treat, it is really special. If this doesn’t work for you, parents can also empower their children with choice in the grocery store to ward off the checkout temper tantrums.
To minimise visits to the toy store, we buy a lot of our toys used. But when my child gets to choose a new toy, another battle with consumerism begins as the colourful toy packaging advertises the fact that there are more toys in the set that simply must be had. I find that by going to the store with a set amount of cash that she is allowed to spend, empowers her to not only make a wise choice but also teaches her the value of money.
I remember some friends who were beginning to struggle with their 13-year-old son – nothing too extreme, just the typical pangs of being a teenager. They booked flights to Peru and backpacked around the poorest parts of the country to show to their son firsthand what the “real” world is like. After that trip, all of their lives became much easier. Granted, this tactic will not work for everyone nor will it be accessible to everyone, but it does provide an example of the over-glorified state of modern consumerism. Showing your children joy without buying “stuff” will establish a healthy attitude to consumption early on. So go on, play tag, build a sand castle and make forts in the lounge.
While I am not a paid educator, I do have a bit of knowledge of the importance of hands-on learning. Many children today are faced with way too much time indoors, instead of using the outside environment to help them learn. Kids love to use their senses – touch, smell, hear, see and taste. When learning takes place predominantly indoors, their senses are bound by what is manufactured around them.
Recent studies have found that children who actively engage in school gardens from planting through to harvest, excel more at science-based topics than those who do not have the opportunity to garden. The simple concept of growing food, practised for thousands of years, introduces lifecycles, healthy eating, insects, plants, soil, sun, water… you get the idea.
Not only should sustainable education focus on hands-on activities but should also focus on the local environment and community. Sustainable communities arise from a sense of belonging and purpose. It amazes me how many children can tell you about the Amazon rainforests or animals in Africa, but cannot tell you about the insects, animals, plants and trees living in their own communities. While learning about distant places is valuable, learning and caring for what is around you is a positive step in contributing to sustainability.
Food and nutrition is another area of sustainability that is often challenging for me, not on the home front but away from home. As a vegetarian family, it is difficult to go out for meals as adults let alone with children. Children’s menus often consist of meat-laden, fatty foods. While I am lucky with my child’s tastebuds (maybe due to the large variety of foods she has eaten since she has had teeth), most vegetarian dishes on the menu are geared for adults with fancy sauces or strong flavoured ingredients…fennel anyone?
You do not have to be a vegetarian to struggle with having a decent, healthy meal out. Finding restaurants that use sustainable, local foods and who are committed to sustainable practices are few and far between. So when you do find one, give them your support in order to keep those kinds of businesses open.
Each parent will struggle with raising children sustainably in their own ways but in the end, children want to be like you. They aspire to be you. Therefore, your actions and attitudes will shape them. If you want them to eat healthily, then you better put back the chips and grab some carrot sticks and hummus. If you want them to care for the environment around them, volunteer the family for a local beach cleanup day. If you want to educate them on the difference between needing and wanting, pack up old toys and bring them to a local shelter for children who do not have anything. Each experience that you give your child will forever shape them. For the future of this earth that we call home, spend time with your children and lead by example.
Do you ever struggle with parenting in the context of living a sustainable life? What are your best tips to share?