Tips for raising an eco-conscious kid
A parenting expert with advice for how to start your child caring for the Earth as much as you do
As a journalist who covers green beauty and sustainable fashion — something I have made my mandate in this last chapter of my career — I often feel like I am lacking on the environmental front at home. I regularly refer to the city of Toronto's TOwaste app, which features the handy Waste Wizard, when throwing things in the recycling or garbage, but I am frustrated when our garbage bags are fuller than I would like. I also receive a lot of beauty products to review, and these often come in excess packaging that I end up feeling very guilty about how to properly discard.
I follow along, jaw clenched, as environmental advocates post stats on social media about the damage we've caused to our planet, I'm often this close to hyperventilating when I think about how the world will look in five, 10, 20 years ... and my eco-anxiety only got worse when I had my daughter in 2016. She's now two and a half, and I'm beginning to show her the ropes when it comes to living a more sustainable lifestyle. But I often wonder if I'm doing enough — and doing it right. So I reached out to an expert to help give me some ideas and techniques to help further my goal.
Caron Irwin, a child development and parenting expert, has tackled this very goal, so I leaned on her to help break down an effective approach to teaching little ones about our environment and how to help preserve the Earth as we know it. "I think the best thing, especially when they're young — toddler, preschooler age and even early school age — is to model the behaviours [ourselves], because, at that age, we are our kids' greatest teachers, and they still idolize us," Irwin tells me. "They learn by observing and experiencing what's going on in their environment … we're showing them the way, but also we're normalizing it."
Irwin shared eight tips on how to raise an "eco-warrior," plus a book list to add to your kids' library to help further guide them. Here's to raising a legion of Greta Thunbergs! It's really the least we can do.
Go to the museum
For older kids, says Irwin, try to find exhibits that touch on the environment — this will help kids to feel emotions about what's going on. "I think making things tangible for them [is important]," she says. "I [went] with my kids on a field trip to an exhibit on the environment and the Earth. There [was] a part about human impact on the environment, and there [were] all these visuals of beaches that are filled with plastic and animals that have been affected by the waste that we are putting onto the Earth … having opportunities for them to actually see those pictures and engage with them and ask questions about them, that makes a huge impact."
This will also give you the opportunity to talk to your children in a frank manner about what they're seeing — and what they can do about the state of the environment. "When kids feel that emotion, it makes them want to react [more] than just hearing about it or being told they should do it … [it] encourages them to make the impact and to have control," says Irwin.
When our kids are preschool age, we tend to spend lots of time outdoors and at local parks. But as they get older, screen time can start to take over. Encouraging your kids to spend time outside, and making time for outdoor activities in your family schedule, is really important. In addition to the health benefits and general enjoyment of being outdoors, children will start to revere this thing they enjoy so much, says Irwin.
Turn emotion into action
Passion is one thing, but, as mentioned above, eco-anxiety is real. So how do you deal with those intense, unpleasant emotions when raising a young one or even a teenager? "I think you approach it as you approach anything that's overwhelming for a kid: you have to break it down into steps," Irwin explains. "If it's too big and too much for them, say, 'OK, well, you're having these feelings … what do you think you could do [for] your part to help make a change?'"
Irwin also suggests sharing the names and stories of environmental activists like Thunberg, David Suzuki or climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. Even talking to kids about a friend or relative who has made small changes to help make less of an impact on the planet could encourage them to do the same and help show that the way to lessen environmental anxiety is through action.
Model sustainable choices
Consistently showing your sustainability prowess will really help ingrain an eco-friendly mentality in your kids as well. "Parents take their young children to the grocery store, and we know there's lots of learning opportunity there," Irwin says. "When getting fruits and vegetables, bring your own bags to put them in," she suggests, while explaining how this habit reduces your plastic consumption. And learning opportunities aren't just limited to the produce aisle. When you're brushing your teeth, explain to your child why you're turning the water off, or tell them why they don't need to excessively flush the toilet. If you make these types of habits part of their routine, they'll likely start to model that behaviour as they grow up.
Consider organizing a family swap with friends or neighbours, then ask your kids to help you gather toys and books (which they get bored with so easily) and outgrown clothing to exchange. This can not only save you money and help introduce new playthings into your kids' collection but also teach children the importance of recycling and reusing, says Irwin.
Make walking a habit
If your kids' school isn't too far away, take a page out of Irwin's book and plan walk-to-school days. "If we can walk every day for a whole month, then we [get to] have a family reward," Irwin says. Taking something that exists in your everyday life already, like your commute, and making it more environmentally sound will help children establish green habits. If doing a full month would be tough on the family schedule, try adding just one walk-to-school day a week or even every other week.
Pack litterless lunches
Sure, these have been around for a while, but they really are a great teaching tool. Invest in reusable sandwich bags, suggests Irwin, especially if your kid has a hard time opening Tupperware on their own. Also, bring them shopping for a reusable water bottle so they feel a sense of pride around using one. "When you do that, they identify with it," says Irwin. "They own it. They're proud of it. They'll use it, and that's also modelling for their peers … it's bigger than them just using a reusable water bottle."
Clean up your community
Community cleanups are usually popular around Earth Month, but bringing that idea into your life throughout the year can pay dividends. "Kids actually love doing it, and it can happen more often, so planning days [throughout] the year where you, as a family, go out and do this together [is a great teaching tool]," Irwin says.
The book list
"Reading books about things that you can do to be conscious of the environment can help pave the way [for] natural conversations around something that can be quite abstract for a young child," says Irwin. "Especially with younger kids, it's great to read books about either the environment in general or the planet, the Earth, being outside … that sort of stuff." Irving recommends referring back to these books to help further solidify this type of thinking for your little ones.
For children ages two to five:
I Love the Earth by Todd Parr
The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle
The Little Recycler, The Little Composter or The Little Gardener by Jan Gerardi
For children ages five to 10:
What Does It Mean to Be Green by Rana DiOrio
What If Everybody Did That? by Ellen Javernick
World Without Fish by Mark Kurlansky
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (also a film on Netflix) by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer