A few weeks ago, my wife’s father (who our two daughters affectionately call “Granddaddy Fitz”) was with us for a visit. In the middle of a NCAA basketball game and one of our typical son-in-law/father-in-law discussions about the crazy state of the world, he made an off-the-cuff comment– something like “Thank goodness I (he) won’t be around too much longer, cus the world is just getting crazier and crazier.” His grandfatherly dark sense of humor aside, Granddaddy Fitz has a point. The world does seem to be getting crazier. The harsh reality is, I live every day as a parent with palpable concern for the future of my children, ages nine and six. All parents do it, of course. We look at our children, gloriously imagine their potential, and then do our best to shake off the more frightful thoughts of what the world may actually have in store for them. I am 46 years old. Not old, but old enough to recognize that the world is without question a more complicated place for our children today than it was just 30-40 years ago.
Things do seem topsy-turvy of late. Volatile politics and school shootings and racial violence and internet crimes and poverty and war and sex scandals are endless news segments. However, when I take a moment to step back and consider our wider history, I am reminded the world has always been as such. It has always been to some extent a brutal and hard and ugly place. So why does it feel so different for our children today? Is it mass media? Is it the constant barrage of negative information? Surely, that’s part of the equation. However, at least in my observation, there is also a giant elephant in the room co-existing with our children, that wasn’t always there. We’ve created it, now they’ll be the ones to have to figure out how to remove it. That elephant, simply put, is the global environmental crisis we have laid at the foot of their respective beds. Our children are aware of it. They see it and live with it every day and night. Imagine for a moment, being a young child trying to accommodate the normal trials and tribulations of development. Then, add on the stress compounded by the noted barrage of mass media. Then, next consider the ever-present psychological weight our kids carry, knowing that the very earth may be fracturing underneath them. Indeed, it is a very different world for our children, today.
In 2005, sustainability pioneer and Minister Bill McKibben wrote:
“Here’s the paradox: If the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The operas? I mean, when people someday look back on our moment, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperature. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out what it meant to us.
Why is that? Well, some of the reasons are obvious. It’s way too big, for one. When something is happening everywhere all at once, it threatens constantly to become backdrop, context, instead of event. And in this case, since the context is the natural world that more and more of us have forgotten how to read, the changes seem small. At my latitude, spring comes a week earlier than it did in 1970. The ice on the lake melts, and the snow in the fields; and the fields commence to drying out, which has real implications later in the season. That’s an almost inconceivably huge change in a basic physical system over a short stretch of time — but not quite big enough to be noticeable, unless you’re paying attention with, say, the vigilance of a farmer. In a society that has more prison inmates than farmers, that’s unlikely.”
Here’s the good news. The backdrop McKibben mentioned in 2005, is now much clearer in the eyes of our children. That is also, unfortunately, part of the challenge. They do see it, but they also feel its weight. It begs the question of have we yet empowered them to handle it? It’s an example of one of parentings more complicated balances. How do we both protect and prepare? How do we shelter and honestly inform? Many of us have had one of those proud and frightful moments when our child presents us with knowledge of a large-scale “adult” social concern. We become immediately impressed by their global knowledge, yet reciprocally fearful that they have the capacity to handle it. For me, it was when our nine-year-old (then five) presented us with her very real comprehension of the Holocaust. However, if parenting has taught me anything thus far, it’s that our children are listening. Acutely. They know much more than we think they know. Despite the naysayers about “these kids today’, they are sharper and wiser than we were. I have a good friend who jokes that five is the new fifteen. There is a sad truth in his observation.
A quick visit to http://www.youthconnect.in/ (a site my third grader shared with me during science class research) highlights some of the environment realities our young children are living with. A brief sample of these include:
-More than 1 million species have already faced extinction due to global warming. One Million. And a considerable number is under threat.
-Also, thanks to global warming, studies reveal that by the end of the century, around 1,50,000 people will have died of heat related causes.
-And, in spite of all the startling consequences, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 34% since the 17th century. And it continues to rise steadily and alarmingly.
-We are using up 50% more natural resources than the Earth can provide. At our current population, we need 1.5 Earths.
-Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop of drinking water! According to USAID, one-third people of the earth will be facing “severe” or “chronic” water shortages by the year 2025.
-Water pollution has gripped the planet miserably. According to the World Health Organization, 3.2 million children under the age of five in developing nations die each year as a result of unsafe drinking water and poor sanitation.
-Rainforests have taken thousands of years to form but every second a portion the size of a football field is destroyed.
And we wonder why our very young children appear so stressed and fatigued these days. Common sense tells us it may run much deeper than our observations about elementary standardized tests and common core math. Our children are readying themselves to fight battles the scope of which never registered in the minds of we, the parental generation.
So, here we are, at that odd parenting moment. They’re already getting the facts. Now, what do we do with it? Hiding our children from the environmental crisis isn’t an option on this one. It’s too big and broad, and has a reach much wider than our parental umbrella. The crisis is already upon our children. They know about it. They are feeling its weight. And it’s no longer just a translucent backdrop. It’s part of the very fabric of their being, of their present, and most certainly their future. So, what do we do? How do we parent this moment?
Well, in my outlook, this “parenting moment”- is where it has the potential to get really good…where we get to see Hope rear her beautiful head. Now, I’m just some guy who happens to deeply love my children and the Green world around us, and who has also been lucky enough to publish a couple of books about those loves. But, I happen to believe that our children have enormous potential to fix the problems we’ve presented them with. We adults haven’t made so much as a dent doing it ourselves, and at 46, I’m growing more and more skeptical that I’ll see real practical widespread change in my lifetime. Real environmental change will require deep shifts in politics, consumerism, education and social behaviors. They will take time. But, time is something our children have. Importantly, they are also born without our learned destructive habitual practices, and with a visceral affinity for the world around them. For these reasons, I find it both imperative and reassuring to prepare my children with knowledge and the tools for inciting practical environmental change. It’s a solution for our world, of course, but it’s also a building block for individual child empowerment within this odd and frightful moment in global history.
Ten things to do as a family to empower your children and positively impact our world.
- 1. Take time to talk to your children about socio-environmental issues. This information is already reaching even our youngest children. Why not let them learn it from you, and in a fashion that is supportive and constructive- helping to build empowerment instead of fear.
- 2. Pay attention to how your family uses use water. Little things can make a big difference. Every time you turn off the water while you’re brushing your teeth, you’re doing something great. Try drinking tap water instead of bottled water, so you aren’t creating waste. Wash clothes in cold water. Have a contest to see who can use the least water to best clean themselves.
- 3. Leave your car at home. If you can stay off the road just two days a week, you’ll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of almost 1600 pounds per year. Allow your children to participate in non-vehicle excursions, and discuss the benefits. Use the opportunity to discuss other cultures that have less reliance on vehicles.
- 4. Recycle. Recycle as a family. Your family can help reduce pollution just by putting that one soda can in a different bin. It seems almost too simple to be that beneficial, but the truth is, the benefits of recycling are tangible and widespread.
- 5. Have a Zero-waste holiday or birthday party. Hold a celebration where nothing, literally nothing, is thrown away. It’s easier than you think. Buys local and organic. Recycle hard materials, compost the food waste. Get the family and/friends involved. Your children will exit with a wonderful sense of accomplishment and purpose.
- 6. Change your light bulbs. Do it as a family. Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) last 10 times longer than a standard bulb and use at least two-thirds less energy. Changing a light bulb seems simple, but to a young child it offers a very visible sense of accomplishment.
- 7. Make a family compost. Current composting bins make this achievable even in the most urban of environments. Kids love it.
- 8. When you need to buy, buy Depending on the age of your child, this is also a great opportunity to teach your child about the complex web of packaging, transit, and fossil fuel use required to buy new products from big box stores.
- 9. Spend time in nature with your family. Turn off the tv and the tablets today and lead the kids outdoors. One of the best gifts we can give our children is an appreciation of their external world. Given the pull of internal stimuli, it is no longer enough for us to tell them to go outside and play. They need us to lead them.
- 10. Involve your children in all of the above activities. Be creative. Involve them in every way you see fit and age appropriate. Plant a tree. Clean up neighborhood trash. Have them assist you on recycling visits. Allow your children to become proactive participants in their environmental world. Remember, not only will our world be stronger, but so will your child.
As I wrap this up. it occurs to me that there is another element to acknowledge in all of this. When I began, I mentioned that moment, “We look at our children, gloriously imagine their potential, and then do our best to shake off the more frightful thoughts of what the world may actually have in store for them.” I truly believe that, by involving and empowering our children toward positive socio-environmental change, that ‘moment’ itself can change- and reconstitute itself as an opportunity to “Look at our children, gloriously imagine their potential, and then take comfort that we’re readying them while also making our world a better place.”