Words by Emma Howarth
I can’t turn on a tap these days without a little environmentalist charging into the room and demanding I stop whatever I’m doing to save the polar bears. Climate change, deforestation, pollution and lack of biodiversity – environmental issues remain high on the global agenda. I’ve deliberately left population growth off the list, but as parents to the planet’s next generation of eco-warriors, I think we’re all aware we might have some peace to make on that front. So, if you care about air quality, clean water and the existence of mountain gorillas, what can you do to minimise the environmental impact of family life? What should we be teaching our children about sustainability? Are there steps we should be taking now to make sure the world our children’s children inherit is a habitable one?
When you’re pregnant with your first child, it’s easy to imagine an eco-perfect world in which you wash all the nappies, make them play with sticks and staycation in Cornwall until the end of time. But the reality can be rather different. Those teeny-tiny sleepsuits are outrageously tempting as you scroll shopping sites during the night feed, you’re too tired to wash your face nevermind a nappy and the grandparents keep showing up with armfuls of plastic toys. What’s a sleep-deprived eco-minded new parent to do?
Kate Blincoe, author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Parenting, thinks it’s simply a case of doing what you can. “The top three green baby rules are: breastfeed, use reusable nappies and avoid tech, but we all know real life is more complicated than that. If you don’t want to use reusable nappies all the time, consider half and half, or just one day a week. Or try using reusable wipes,” she says. “It’s the same with breastfeeding. If it’s not an option for you, then just make formula feeding as eco-friendly as you can. Buy safe glass baby bottles, use powder instead of ready-made milk and keep your kettle de-scaled for efficient boiling. And think carefully before shelling out for tech like vibrating chairs and video monitors.”
A keep-it-simple approach goes a long way but, let’s face it, cute clothes and beautiful blankets are part of the joy of having a newborn around. We’re all for hand-me-down everything in principle, but it’s only natural to want to shower the newest love of your life in onesies and Instagrammable mini -moccasins. Blincoe totally gets it, but gently suggests reducing the impact by choosing organic cotton, wooden toys or looking for second-hand versions of high-end baby products. “Definitely don’t feel guilty about it,” she says. “Remember it’s what you do with items after that counts, too. Buy colours you think will work for younger siblings of either gender. And pass toys and clothes on to friends when you are done.”
Green living comes into its own once you’ve got a toddler to entertain. Zion Lights, author of The Ultimate Guide to Green Parenting and ‘Britain’s Greenest Mother’ according to the Daily Telegraph, had her daughters helping out with the composting before they could crawl. She also credits a ‘Magic Art Box’ she started at home when they were toddlers with much of their understanding of what it means to reuse and recycle.
“It’s just a box full of all those odds and ends that can’t be composted or put in the recycling,” she says. “They love using it to make art projects and it’s taught them to see waste as something to be reused, not disposed of – without me ever having to formally explain that to them.”
Indeed, Lights believes there isn’t much we need to overtly teach children about taking care of the world around them because their enthusiasm for it is instinctive. “Children naturally love to play with rocks and sticks, make dens, climb trees and splash in puddles,” she says. “We just need to ensure that they have access to these things. If they are given time to play in nature, they will love nature.”
As well as encouraging children’s innate love of the natural world, there are practical steps we can take to help them help us protect the planet. We can model positive behaviours ourselves (turning lights off, remembering to take a bag to the shops), get them involved (feeding the birds, planting seeds, sorting the recycling) and teach them to stand up for what they believe in.
Supporting children with the latter can be particularly powerful beyond the pre-school years, when their understanding of things like climate change and endangered species begins to be reinforced in the classroom. It’s a great time to step things up a bit and get them involved in really considering the impact of their own consumption. As before, though, it’s all about the small steps: encouraging them to walk to school, taking them foraging for blackberries, supporting their interests by buying them books about conservation and green issues, and helping them to get involved with community or national initiatives that support the environment.
“Primary school children might like to choose an environmental charity to support, such as the RSPB or Woodland Trust,” says Blincoe. “And it’s a great idea to look out for family volunteering days on nature reserves or community litter picking sessions – get stuck in, get mucky and make a difference.”
The Wildlife Trusts’ Liz Carney knows all about the positive effects of getting children involved with nature charities. “Nurturing a love for nature in childhood helps to develop confident, content and resilient individuals who are able to engage in society as active citizens,” she says. “Children are happier and healthier when they’re close to nature.”
The Wildlife Trusts’ junior branch has some 150,000 members who receive a seasonal magazine and take part in outdoor activities, ranging from scavenger hunts, natural arts and crafts, to foraging and den building. The Trusts also run junior volunteering groups, events for toddlers and wildlife watch groups across the UK. There are, of course, many other national and local charities promoting similar initiatives at parks, gardens and wildlife centres.
It’s easy to get bogged down in wanting to ban plastic bags, protect endangered species and stop global warming all at the same time, but focusing on engaging the next generation, and starting small and local, makes a lot of sense.
“Starting local and finding everyday nature on the doorstep is easier for many families, particularly when children are young,” says Carney. “Getting up close and personal creates memorable experiences for children that they won’t forget, like seeing a frog jump, holding a worm, or feeding garden birds.”
The school years – with all the outside pressures they bring – are also a great time to refocus efforts towards responsible consumption and avoiding what Lights calls ‘Material Parenting’. “This is a type of parenting where the parent rewards the child with consumer goods,” explains Lights. “It’s a bad habit to get into as children who are materially rewarded in this way have been found to be unhappier as adults. Better to instead offer experience-based rewards, like doing an activity together or going somewhere fun.”
The more your children witness you getting involved and making positive choices about the things you buy, eat and use, the more naturally they’ll embrace sustainable living. And the more joyful you make these experiences, the better. Green living doesn’t have to be difficult or guilt-inducing, and it’s certainly not an all-or-nothing situation. Lights couldn’t agree more. “Joy is at the heart of it for me,” she says. “Being green is joyful and helps us to find pleasure in the small things that we so often forget about.”
So whether you’re bringing home your baby from the birthing centre wrapped in a 10-year-old blanket, watching your toddler get muddy in the garden, or lighting candles so your nine-year-old can support Earth Hour, remember that even the smallest steps in the right direction make a big difference for the future of the planet.