How to raise eco-conscious kids without terrifying them
"Mommy, why are those people yelling?" asked my 5-year-old as we walked by a rally against climate-change in downtown Munich.
"Because they are really angry," I answered, expecting a second question that never came.
I haven't talked much about climate change with my children. Not in the blunt and scary way at least. At the tender age of three and five, I fear their capacity to understand and manage the emotions that stem from society's self-destructing habits is limited. You see, it is an incredibly challenging time to be a parent–and I don't say this because we're in the middle of a global pandemic. Covid-19 certainly has most parents jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. But pandemic aside, we have the incredible challenge of raising ecologically responsible children to save the planet from climate change's devastating impacts—something that didn't rob previous generations of their sleep. Add racial injustice, economic inequality, gun violence, and you'll wonder why anyone in the right state of mind would want to raise a child in the twenty-first century. It is chaotic and scary.
Making sense of what we do and its impact is difficult enough for adults, let alone children. Tuning into feelings of fear, anger, and hopelessness without allowing them to stun me or prompt me to check out requires a self-prescribed daily dose of compassion and tolerance. This process entails unpacking each feeling, putting it into context, and staying in touch with reality. It is not easy, but it is necessary if we want anything to change, ever. Dr. Renee Lertzman, an environmental psychologist and founder of Project InsideOut, eloquently describes this process as attunement.
"When we are more in tune in our window of tolerance, we are so much more capable of solving problems, being creative, being adaptive, being our brilliant selves," says Lertzman.
Avalanches of statistics and reports swamp the Internet every day with dire warnings. They find their way into my social media and flood my inbox, as I am sure they do yours too. Don't get me wrong; I understand the urgency of the situation. After experiencing this myself, I also understand that screaming at each other to wake up will only send us into a numbing state. Terrifying our children with our carbon gushing habits' devastating effects will serve us no good. Sorry kid, we did this, and now you must fix it. Isn't every parents' dream to depart this world, leaving behind better opportunities than we inherited from others? The guilt and anguish can feel insurmountable. How do I break away from this cycle and start acting? I would ask myself.
When I first started tuning into these feelings, I stumbled upon the work of Cheryl Leutjen, author of Love Earth Now. Leutjen's beautiful reflections are basically the reason why I went from thinking of feral pigeons as anything more than annoying pests to having full-on conversations with them. In all seriousness, practicing eco-mindfulness, the act of being present and in tune with our feelings, has been the key to getting myself unstuck and into a journey of small but meaningful steps to halt environmental degradation. Showing up at the rally is important, but if the screaming is sinking you into the realms of hopelessness like me, know that there are other ways.
Modeling environmentally responsible behaviors to my children at home makes me feel capable of actively doing something and teaching them that they can too. If I've learned anything from parenthood, it is that children learn from what we do, not from what we tell them to do. Bonding while making a craft out of pinecones or learning about birch trees together might not seem like the ultimate planet-saving tactic, but it is.
Because through these activities, I can help my children make sense of what climate scientists urge us to do. We sort out the trash, walk when we can, support our local producers, and separate our food scraps. But I have compassion for myself when I fail and tolerate others when their actions don't align with the urgency in need. We do this fully aware that systemic change at a much larger scale is absolutely necessary.
One doctor can't save an entire population from an illness, but many doctors can. We are all "doctors" here.