How to Balance Raising Your Kids AND Helping the Environment

by - Wednesday, January 23, 2019

How to Balance Raising Your Kids AND Helping the Environment

The environment clearly needs our help- there is climate change to fight, oceans to clean (billions of microplastics to pick out), trees to plant, economic systems to change, plastic to stop, and basically a world to save!

There's a lot to do. So much, in fact, that it can feel like a job you just can't grapple with while also being a parent. At least until the children are in school, need you less, or out of the house. I get that, it definitely is overwhelming, and being a parent is plenty of work on it's own.

But here's the hard truth- our children's future is on the line, and we cannot wait.

We have a 12 year deadline according to the UN, where we can still limit climate catastrophes. That means, if you have little ones, they will be in high school when we reach that time. This means that Climate Change won't just effect their future, they are going to increasingly overtake every moment of their childhood. We either have to get it right, or these challenges will shape every second of their life. Wouldn't you like then to have a future of clean water? Where there aren't natural disasters left and right? Where humans are effective stewards of their gift of Earth?

Then the time to act is now.

My basic theory of parenting is that our job is:

 to raise our children to be good for the Earth
to make the Earth as good as we can for our children.

Both are epic and impossibly involved jobs, especially if you try to do it on your own. That is even before we count in all the ways that our individual circumstances (relationship status, race, geography, income) take the little bit of time and resources from us. But both jobs demand that we keep trying every day and after every mistake. Because that is what adds up in the end.

So, I am suggesting that if there are parts of your child's world that you don't like, you can be an agent in changing things. It is actually part of our job as a parent to keep trying to make the world our children will inherit a little bit better. How this is done and what steps we can take is completely individual; no one can do everything on this list, but everyone can do something. You don't have to do it all yourself to make a difference.

I don't have any perfect "How to" on how to do this, because I struggle with finding this balance every single day. Making phone calls, writing letters, going to events all take time, and I don't feel like I am drowning in time at this juncture in my life. And honestly, I am one of the lucky ones in a generation where most everyone is struggling to scrape by. But I do believe that we have to keep pushing against the system that oppresses, stratifies, and destroys.

I know that's a lot to ask, but I have some ideas on how to make the job more manageable (and options that aren't as time or money-demanding). Let's do this:

Raise your Kids Outside

The urgency of saving nature only truly makes sense when we understand ourselves as part of nature. Climate Change isn't just effecting a polar bear or an iceberg they will never see. That connection has to be established when we are young; make a goal to spend an hour outside everyday. I highly recommend the book "How to Raise a Wild Child" for inspiration.

An hour in the backyard or a park may not seem like a radical act, but this time outside can fuel lifelong connections between family time, a love of the outdoors, and political action. To have that connection run so deep is powerful on its own.

Find Communities of Support

The best way to get things done with kids is to work in teams (especially with other caretakers). My whole impact changed when I started to collaborate with other stay at home parents, but more importantly, I didn't feel alone anymore. One person can play with kids while another works and another makes phone calls.  I also find it a lot more motivating when I am working toward a shared goal than just doing it myself.

So how do you find that community? First, don't be embarrassed to talk about what really matters to you. How will people know you have that bond unless you put your priorities out there? Plus, experience has taught me that people who don't care now could very well care soon. Be that friend they brag about their unsponges to. Second, check what groups or conversations are already going on around you, and jump in. Parenting groups on facebook can actually be a great place to connect, or joining a formed group can help you meet the people who get you.

Start Where You Already Are

Part of what makes us feel so helpless to save the environment is we think of it as far away- coral reefs, icebergs, rainforests are all so far away! If you want to fight for the environment in a way that is tangible to your kids, think of problems that can be solved where you live. What could you change at your kids' school? At you place of worship? At your City Council meetings? Do you live somewhere that still has plastic bags in the grocery stores? Band together with neighbors to get single use plastics out of your community. Or get all single use plastics out of your church's coffee hours. Just starting where is actually convenient for you triples your chances of success.

The problems our environment faces are absolutely enormous and more complex than we know. It is too big for one person to solve. So take that burden off yourself and start by solving the problems you face everyday, the ones you know best- start at your workplace, your community, your local government, or the businesses you frequent. It's like watching something fall off a table- the closer you are to the table, the better chance you have of fixing the problem. That doesn't mean you don't have impact on more global issues, but in this season, starting local makes the most sense.

Join a Group that Embraces Kids

Lots of groups say they are "kid-friendly," but what does that even mean? In the time of facebook, it isn't that hard to find out. Write the group. You can even write them if they don't address kids either way. Ask if they have experience with the chaos kids bring to meetings or events. Ask whether the activity will be safe for kids. Ask as much as you want to take the leap and go. If you can't find one in your neck of the woods, Moms Clean Air Force is an awesome national group that brings attention to pressing issues and sometimes has good action items.

One more tip? Go with a friend with kids. It's hard to be that one disruptive jerk. But one of many disruptive jerks is less terrible.

Make Volunteering Routine

The beauty of being a parent is you get to impart whatever crazy vision of normal you want, and your kids will really think that is normal! My children will be the only weirdos on Earth that think PB and J is when you dip a peanut butter sandwiches into jelly. That's power, friends.

For that reason, you can set the stage for the rest of their lives on how they spend their time. If you want to raise generous and altruistic adults, start now. All over, communities need volunteers to plant trees and protect wildlife. If they are up and moving, they can help dig a hole or weed. Will it be as fast as without them? Nope, but you are training that volunteer spirit for the rest of their lives.

I have found this works best if we sign up for volunteering events with other families. Some parents can watch over kids when they (inevitably) get bored. But the connection is there- taking care of our world IS work, but that work is worth doing.

Multitask (Because All Parenting is Just One Giant Time Management Riddle)

Last school year, my infant and I would drop our preschooler off every Thursday. Then, I would walk laps around his school, so the baby could sleep in the carrier, I could get my steps, and I could make sassy (but not too loud) calls to politicians. It was awesome!

There is lots of talk for ANYTHING for parents about "making time"- make time for self-care, for exercise, etc. Well, there are only 24 hours a day, and we are exhausted for all of them. So instead of "making" time, think about how you could layer on political work into time you are already working. Leave politicians messages while you fold laundry or (if you are really brave) do dishes. Plan "playdates" where you and parent buddies write postcards for politicians. Sign and share petitions while you breastfeed. Always bring a bag with you when you go to the beach. Make phone calls (on speaker!) when you are in line for pickup.

The options are limited, and only you know your schedule, but my best timing advice is to stop waiting for the perfect gap and figure out how to work it into the schedule you already have.

Yes, this absolutely means your kids will witness these activities, and we are all already kicking ourselves for being on our phone in their presence. But just think every moment of this is modeling for them who you want them to be and the best of who you are; someone who cares and who does something about it!

Talk with (and Around) your Kids About What You are Doing and Why

On that note, when they ask what you are up to, just tell them. Talk about why you are collecting trash. Talk about why you recycle. Talk about why you are leaving for a meeting if you can do that. Be positive, focus on the good being done, but be honest.

I read that our desire to protect our kids is actually protecting inequality and privileges. I think this is true of these environmental issues too. You don't have to attache doom to the situation to explain which things you are trying to take care of, or to say how air quality is worse for people with less money, etc. Debate and plan in front of them, just keep it gentle.

Let Books (and Websites) Help

Your child is not likely to ask "Hey parent, explain changing climate patterns to me" so it can be hard to know where to start. Start with books. No matter what their age, you can find amazing books that encourage a love of nature and explain these phenomena. These are some of my favorites (most of which you can buy secondhand):

For Babies and Toddlers:

For Preschoolers:

The Big Book of Bugs (Also love of Blue)
Little Kids First BIG Book of Weather (so many great books in this series)

For Elementary School:

If you are looking for another resource, Climate Kids is a website started by NASA that beautifully illustrates Climate Change for kids in a way that is fun, interactive, and not too terrifying. It's a great resource for kids who are reading.

Embrace the Internet (and Maybe a Phone Call or Two)

When our parents were fighting for what they believed in, they were making phone calls and writing letters. Contemporary technology can enable us to do a lot (and faster!). You can join national and local groups on their facebook pages, and they can keep you up to date on what battles are being fought right now. Sometimes they just need signatures and shares; you can do that!

Also, resources like the website 5calls can help you find the numbers you need to call and even let you know what to say (super helpful if you are awkward like me). An environmental issue is usually on the list (right now, we fight to keep a coal lobbyist from running the EPA- what the heck). Don't start from scratch- let people who are fighting full time connect with you and direct you where help is needed most.

Sometimes, Being a Warm Body (or Signature) is Enough

And really, if all you can do today is sign a petition and share it, you have done something. As with everything in parenting, the feelings of not doing or being enough can be absolutely debilitating. But even the smallest pebbles make ripples when you throw them in the water. But you still have to throw that pebble.

If you are already drowning in life, know this is a season where you can't do as much. That's OK! There will be another season where you can do more and someone hard at work now will be doing less. Keep in touch with the groups and issues that you care about. When something really needs your help or you feel super passionately, you will know its time to dive in.

Eat Way Less Meat

Our approach to food and traditions is absolutely inherited from our parents. Pretty crazy stuff, when you consider that we get to decide what is normal for our kids. One of the gifts we can give them is a food tradition that is less dependent on animal-products and more centered on plants. It's better for the Earth and for their bodies.

Meat and animal products is one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases. It is also creating massive amounts of waste. Meat is truly terrible for the environment. Eating less meat won't cost you time and it will save you money. Best case scenario, we all go vegan, but we all have to start in a place that works for us. Luckily, there are lots of options. Make meat a night out thing. Or introduce one meatless dinner a year. We have thousands of ideas if you need them. Spread your lasagna meat over two lasagnas. Less can look a lot of ways- do what works for your family.

Back up What You Say With What You Buy

Want to do something radical? Use every purchase you make as a vote for the world you want. Stop giving money to companies that don't live up to your values as a family. Break the constant churn of wanting and shopping.

This starts with simply buying way less. We know that the average American home has 300,000 objects in it- that is way more than we need! We tend to fall into this trap even more with kids- they have way too much clothes and books, and we sped our life cleaning. Here are my best tips for raising your kids to be minimalists.

Once you buy much less (and buy what you can secondhand, your purchases of brand new items can prioritize ethics and environment a little more. Can you bemoan the state of the oceans if you are still buying plastic babyfood pouches and synthetic fabrics? Well, you can, but it means less, and your kids are watching. They will remember what you do over what you say, so they will feel that change in your family culture.

So, just another thing you have to do absolutely perfectly! Huzzah! Ok, maybe I am lying here. I have been working on this for 4 years. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I do what we need to just survive the day. I will say I feel proud that my kids have no expectation of getting something when we go to the store or don't fight back when we gift old toys on Buy Nothing. They have no expectation of gifts at their birthday party (no really! Check this post). I feel excited that our wardrobes are mostly secondhand. I feel happy that our grocery cart isn't absolutely overflowing with plastic. All this stuff feels good, but it takes a while, and I am definitely still working on it. It's another place where little victories make a big difference, especially if you keep it up.

Ok, what would your tips be for a parent who wants to balance the needs of the Earth with the craziness of parenting?

How to Balance Raising Your Kids AND Helping the Environment

Want to keep greening your life as a family? I have so many ideas for you! Check out the Green Families page! 

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  1. We are trying to incorporate this into our lives. Our kids have been on river clean ups, they help pack my eco-briks and know all about recycling and why we need to do it but it is an ongoing conversation.

  2. My husband and I are trying incorporate this in our life. Helping the environment is a great learning for our kids as well.

  3. Omg !!! Much needed post at this time . Our kids must know about their own environment and they have to keep it clean .

  4. i'm all for more ecofriendliness, but just cant give up meat



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