My four-year-old announced the other day at breakfast, ‘If I break something, you can just buy me a new one, can’t you?’ And then kept eating her porridge like four-years-olds do when they drop a bomb. They just carry on and leave us to pick our jaws up off the floor.
And really on a scale of bombs this wasn’t the worst that I have heard, or will hear, but it did stop me in my tracks. It made me worry that we had somehow reinforced the notion that everything is replaceable, and therefore our possessions don’t need looking after.
But if we hold that thought for a minute - about not looking after our own belongings - then how on ‘earth’ are we going to look after it, THE EARTH? This wonderful planet that we are lucky to have, and temporarily occupy, but also have the enormous responsibility of caretaking it for generations of people, animals, plants and other extraordinary living and non-living things to come. Sadly, unlike a Barbie that has lost its head or a lump of playdoh that has been squished and moulded into a singular grey mass, the earth isn’t replaceable. Mattel can’t whip us up a new one for Santa to bring.
Parents are primary educators
The role of the family is as ‘first educator’. As parents we are ‘guardians’ of our children and we get to choose what we talk to them about when they are in our care. We are the ones who choose to read books to them before they can speak; we are the ones who try and teach them to be good people and to use kind words and hands. Our children rely on us teach them more than they can learn from school. As parents, if we rely on all our children’s education to come from others, we’ll undoubtedly be disappointed with them missing the wonderful texture and richness that comes from life in between textbooks and maths drills. It’s not that this richness can’t come from school, but it’s our job to help fill some of the gaps and equip them to be wonderful assets to our world.
We can outsource this to a point, but in the end the buck stops with us. That also gives us the opportunity to be a key influence in the way that they think and act on their love for our environment, beliefs on equality and kindness to others. Ultimately, we can help shape whether our children leave a light footprint on this earth or a dark and muddy one.
How can we start when they’re young?
Here are some ideas to get you started. It’s by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully starts the conversation.
1. Begin with their interests and what they may already know
Children are like sponges. They absorb so much new information and have an uncanny knack for having big ears during adult conversations, but very small ones when it’s time to set the table. I’m quite sure that they will have a pretty good idea that there are environmental considerations that as humans, we need to think about. Obviously, what they say will be age dependent, for example my four-year-old says ‘the earth is sick’ but my nine-year-old says, ‘we need plants to turn CO2 back into oxygen’.
By asking them what they think, you are signalling that you value their opinion and that every voice in the family matters. You can also gauge what specific interests they might have with regards to specific environmental issues and use those to guide your family’s thoughts and actions. Things are always easier and more motivating if you care about them in the first place. For example, a child might be passionate about the sea, or saving habitat for wildlife or recycling sushi soy sauce containers. It can be big or small but if it comes from them it will be all the more motivating.
2. Explain over-consumption and reducing impact as a family, and as individuals
By teaching children about being less consumer-driven helps your bank account and teaches them to place value on ‘stuff’. Back to my four-year-old who thinks broken toys are so replaceable, we have spent time discussing as a family all the ways of looking after our things, keeping toys and games safely back in their boxes, using the local library to borrow books, videos and toys and being proud of donating quality items to charity when we are done with them.
Listen to Kinderling Conversation:
But it’s so hard to teach kids not to be so consumer driven when they are bombarded with ads and new collectibles all.the.time. And of course, all good intentions go flying out the window come birthday time. Who wants to say no to their child? Who wants to be that parent that won’t buy their kid a LOL doll when all of their friends have one (have you seen the packaging on those things btw?!)? I don’t have a simple answer but collectively we must do better. Why not consider ditching the present giving/receiving routine and suggest a group present towards a bigger item that the child is saving for? A win-win for present buyers and the birthday child. It’s easy using group together or group prezzie or just old-school cash. If you want to take it a step further, consider donating some of that money to your child’s favourite charity – and remember to ask them what that is and why! Or simply start by considering where things come from, what they are made of, how they were made, who made them and how long they will last.
3. Be an example
Possibly the most meaningful way to teach your kids about conscious consumerism is to build ethical, environmental and sustainable choices into your household routine now so that it becomes a habit for life, for you all.
Show your child the back of packet labels and explain the significance of certain actions. Explain why you might not buy a certain brand because of its environmental impact. Maybe it contains palm oil? Or is not ethically sourced? In our family we emailed a company to ask if their seaweed crackers contain palm oil. We sat down together looked up the company, found the email and wrote a family email. Not only does this have an environmental impact, it also teaches kids that even their voices can make a difference. A great lesson for life. Show them your reusable coffee cup and think about buying a reusable baby-cino cup! Say no to plastic straws and plastic water bottles and get your child cool reusable ones. Recycle and encourage the kids to help to earn household chores/pocket money. My nephew made $70 by recycling all the bottles and cans from his local area and taking them to a 10c depot! Use natural or enviro-friendly cleaning products. There are so many of them in today’s market with great efficacy and far less chemicals, so much better for both the environment and our health.
4. Involve their grandparents when possible
Ask a grandparent whether they had a simpler, more eco-friendly way of life that they can share. Maybe they got milk in glass bottles or had a family vegetable garden? Maybe they made or mended their own clothes and played with toys handed down from their siblings? Perhaps it was pickling/preserving or just using baking soda and vinegar to clean… Use this as a discussion point and opportunity to share wonderful memories with family and have kids get to know more about their grandparents.
Also have grandparents ask kids what they know about the environment. Kids today are often much better educated on environmental issues than we, or their grandparents, were and we can learn a lot from them too. Remember that even basic things like household recycling pick-up was not really commonplace when we were kids, and today most kids wouldn’t even dream of throwing paper or plastic straight in the bin.
5. Try community involvement together
There are a few awesome charities that take their role as child influencers really seriously. We’ve picked our favourites, but there are many others and some possibly close to your home. Everyone needs hope, and children need to feel like they can activate on their desire to help. They might even like to take some of their involvement and learnings to their school/SRC and create a wider community of kids that care.
Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots – helping young people solve local problems in their communities
Australian Youth Climate Coalition – youth run organisation helping find solutions to climate change
Seed - Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network.
Taronga Zoo’s Youth at the Zoo (YATZ) – for older kids 13-19, Sydney based (there are similar YATZ programs at most zoos)
Spark the creative power of kids
Children are so creative and resilient – they come up with the most amazing ideas and have such interesting perspectives on the world. Imagine harnessing the creative powers of the earth’s children as a building block to shape the future of our planet.
Equip your child with the tools to ask the questions and challenge the status quo and encourage that debate so that they keep asking those questions as they get older.
Finally, because she is so inspiring, and says it far more eloquently that I ever could, here are some wise words from Dr Jane Goodall, whom I was lucky enough to hear speak when she was in Australian in 2017. My key takeout is that we are not taking good care of our planet for our children and for their sake, we need to find positive ways to make a difference and above all, act ethically.
“I can promise you, there are young people just like you, they’re becoming chimpanzee guardians, they’re learning about and helping to protect the rainforest, where most of the primates live, and it’s actually making a huge difference.”
“So you, as an individual, just have to remember that in your life, you matter, you have a role to play, and that every single day you live you make some impact and you get a choice as to what kind of impact you’re going to make.
“Now, imagine there are billions of people making ethical choices each day as to what you buy, what you wear, what you eat, how is it made, where did it come from, did it involve cruelty to animals or child slave labour?
“Then if everyone is making the right ethical choice, whatever religion they’re part of, then we’re going to have a much better world for you as you grow up, and for the primates.
“We have this expression, ‘We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children’.
“We have not borrowed our children’s future – we have stolen it and we’re still stealing it now, and it’s time we get together, whatever our religion, whatever our culture, get together and start changing the way – changing our attitude, so that we can leave a better world for our children, whom we love.”
This article was originally published on Kin & Kind. Josie Jones is co-founder of Kin & Kind, who run parent-focused workshops and meet-ups to encourage real life adult conversations (as a nice alternative to the normal child-focused activities!). Head to kinandkind.com.au to see their upcoming events near you.
Ethical doesn't equal boring: 10 plastic-free gifts for kids under $25
For any parent who shudders at the thought of buying useless plastic toys...
How on earth? 3 simple ways to grow a greener family
How do we cultivate our kids' respect for the environment in a way that sticks?
Reduce your child's toxin exposure with these 5 steps
Did you know that cleaning product companies aren't required to list ingredients?
The ultimate guide to eco-friendly kids' clothing
Saving the earth one romper at a time!
Ethical and sustainable: Not-so-fast fashion ideas for growing kids
Keeping your brood dressed with style and a conscience doesn't have to cost the earth.
3 ways your family can make a difference to the environment
A few easy things to swap out, so your kids can make a difference.
No more leaks: Why incontinence doesn’t need to control your life
Too many Aussie mums are suffering in silence.
9 clever ways to get children off their screens (without them realising)