The climate crisis is so monumental, its symptoms so horrific — acidifying oceans, raging wildfires, vanishing wildlife — that it’s easy to feel paralyzed in the face of it. For parents raising the children who will inherit a damaged planet, the prospect can feel particularly daunting.
And when families go looking for ways they can help, they might encounter the sort of listicle that often circulates — 10 ways to be a greener parent! 15 tips for eco-friendly parenting! — which might not actually help them feel less overwhelmed. Yes, making your own baby food produces less waste than buying plastic-packaged purées, and riding your bike is preferable to driving, and avoiding red meat is a beneficial environmental choice. But not everyone can make baby food from scratch or bike to work, and suggestions such as “choose locally grown greens” may not be feasible for families living in food deserts. We all know diapers are dreadful for the environment, and although skipping them altogether is an option (one employed by determined souls who want to speed up potty training and probably don’t have carpeted floors), it may not be an approach that your family is prepared to embrace.
Individual consumer choices do matter (go for that bamboo toothbrush over a plastic one; the sea turtles thank you), but they are not the deciding factor in halting the current crisis, says Mary DeMocker, an environmental activist and author of “The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night’s Sleep.”
“Busy parents — along with everyone else — have been told for years that individual lifestyle changes can stop the climate from spinning out of control, but the truth is they can’t,” she wrote in her book. “Not by themselves, anyway.”
Climate change, experts have widely stated, is a problem that must be solved at a policy level. But this doesn’t mean that families can’t make choices that will have a real impact. DeMocker and Heather McTeer Toney, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator and the national field director for Moms Clean Air Force, offer a few suggestions for parents who want to know where to start.
Focus time, energy on larger movement
If you only have a little time to spare at the end of a busy week, the best way to spend it is not by meticulously sorting every scrap of recyclable material in your home, but rather by contributing to bigger environmental efforts — whether at the local, state or national level, DeMocker says.
“Spend 10 minutes looking at your local grassroots climate group online,” she says. Are they protesting a proposed pipeline? Urging residents to call their elected officials about pending legislation? Advocating for the protection of a threatened park or waterway?
“Understand your sphere of influence, where your interest is and where the levers of power are. … Look up the important decisions being made on the policy level in your own community,” she says.
This is especially critical in an election year, she says. “Now is the time to plug into the electoral cycle, at whatever level parents and families can,” she says. “That might mean volunteering, it might mean phone-banking or knocking on doors, it might mean just having more water-cooler conversations about the climate champions who are running for office.”
Moms Clean Air Force encourages its members to bring their kids with them when they do advocacy work, Toney says. “There are kids who, I swear, should be registered lobbyists because they know how to advocate, they have been in the practice of speaking for themselves,” she says. If you don’t have time to plan a trip to your local representative’s office, she adds, your child can help you reach out in other ways.
“Sign a petition, write an email, send a Facebook message with a picture of a handmade sign,” she says. “Find out what people in your community are doing, and join in.”
Connect kids to the environment
“This sounds really simple, but just getting outdoors is hugely helpful for getting your children to have a connection with nature and the environment,” Toney says. That doesn’t mean you have to take them on a grand tour of every national park: “I don’t mean, ‘Go buy $500 hiking boots and climb through the mountains,’ ” she says. “Figure out what you have right in your space, and just go outside.”
When you’re out there, help your children learn how to pay attention to their surroundings. Even with very young kids, this is something that sets the stage for a deeper environmental awareness, Toney says.
“When we walk from the front door to the car, which is just down a little sidewalk, we take note of what’s outside. ‘There’s the grass, and the trees, and is that a flower? What color is the tree? Is that a rabbit?’ ” she says. “It creates a relationship. Now when my little one gets out of the car at night, he immediately looks up. He says, ‘Oh, stars! The sky! Clouds!’ We’re trying to create, at a very young age, this connection with the natural things around us.”
Pick one thing to champion or to give up
If the eco-parenting “to-do” lists are feeling like too much, DeMocker suggests finding just one thing that feels reasonable for your family to give up, such as eating red meat, buying tropical wood, taking vacations that involve plane travel or using a bank with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“When my kids were little, we made sure people knew that we didn’t want plastic toys or battery-operated toys for the holidays or birthdays,” she says. “We said, ‘Give us movie tickets, give us roller skates or puzzles, tennis rackets and jump ropes.’ Things that will allow children to play outside and learn how to cooperate.”
Or you might choose one thing for your family to embrace, such as advocating for more local pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, or supporting local farmers. Toney’s family decided to collect reusable bags in lieu of single-use plastic ones.
“Other people go to visit a place and come back with a cup or a mug, but we come back with a bag and add it to our collection,” she says. “When we’re traveling, the kids are like, ‘Oh, have we gotten our bag yet?’ It’s a practice that makes them think about the kinds of materials we use.”
Empower kids to be agents of change
Is your community debating an environmental policy or pondering the possibility of adding more pedestrian- or bicycle-friendly infrastructure? If there’s a public hearing coming up, let your child be the one who addresses your elected leaders. Planning to attend a pro-environment demonstration? Bring the kids, and let them make their own signs.
Not every young climate activist is Greta Thunberg, but any child can carry her message forward, DeMocker says. “A child can make a sign to display on your car or the bike or the front lawn,” she says. “They can knock on doors, help you write a letter or an email.”
For younger kids, this sense of initiative can start at the household level. When Toney’s daughter was 7, the family’s community did not provide recycling bins. She was determined that the family should recycle anyway, so she created her own container, decorating a big cardboard box with crayon drawings, Toney says.
“We kept that box until it was soaked through with God knows what, and that was our recycling container, and that was initiated by my child,” Toney says. “It’s important to find things that they can initiate themselves, and support them in that.”
Don’t give in to despair
For Christmas 2016, DeMocker asked her family to create a “wall of kindred spirits” in their home, complete with portraits of inspirational figures, climate heroes and creative icons — among them Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres and Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who was honored for leading an effort to plant 30 million trees. The point of this display, DeMocker says, is to offer encouragement in moments when optimism feels hard to come by.
“When I’m ragged and without the strength to go on, my heroes silently say, You’ve got this, dear. Keep on fighting,” she writes in her book.
The climate crisis can be frightening and heartbreaking, and we must make space to process those emotions, DeMocker says; cry, vent, go for a run — but then rally, because it’s not too late. And kids need to see determination and optimism modeled for them, too.
“We have hope; scientists are telling us that we are not doomed, and this is really an important conversation because so many people think we’re a lost cause already,” DeMocker says. “And we have to work hard to address that, because I think it’s the biggest issue we face — the emotional response that people have to the climate crisis. And I understand why; it’s big, it’s daunting. But it is not a lost cause, and we must remember that.”