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Baby Steps: A mother teaches environmental stewardship, one gum wrapper at a time


Raising an eco-minded child can be tough in a Barbie doll world


By Gretchen Roberts



Last night, my four-year-old-daughter, Kate, and I spent some quality time together. We made dinner with herbs and veggies from our garden, then sorted the recycling and put our vegetable scraps in the compost bin out back. We laced up our tennis shoes and headed out on our monthly neighborhood association's beautification walk, covering over two miles to pick up trash on our neighborhood streets. Kate knew exactly which bottles to put in the recycling bag and which cups (Styrofoam) to throw in the trash sack. I complimented and encouraged her, proud of her stewardship of the earth.

When we arrived at the community clubhouse to meet the rest of the team, Kate paused outside the door with her gum wrapper, looking for a trash can. Seeing none, she threw her wrapper on the ground and walked inside.

Our trash pickup group roared with laughter. Red-faced, I picked up her wrapper and followed her inside. One step forward, two steps back.

Raising, really raising a child with intention instead of passivity, is hard work. My values are strong and firm, and I know that I need to go beyond leading by example when it comes to my kids. Like the old adage, "Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for life," children learn best by doing.

So we wash our clothes in cold water, and as Kate loads the washer I explain how electricity works, that while it seems clean coming into the house, somewhere in the mountains a power plant is burning fossil fuel to power us up. She and her one-year-old sister share a bath, and though Kate wants to start taking showers, I hold her off for a few more months by telling her about the importance of water savings. When we cook dinner, she sorts the vegetable scraps for me and follows me to the compost bin to water it with gray water from inside. One step forward.

But Kate is out there in the world, too, the world of consumption. She comes home from preschool with an Oreo-crusted face and reports that all her friends have Dora backpacks. Why can't she have a Dora backpack?

"Because your backpack is perfectly good, honey. We don't get rid of things that still work just because we're tired of them."

"But my backpack is boring." Already the melodrama has crept in.

"Your backpack came all the way from Chile, when mommy and daddy went there for a visit. Can your friends say that?"

"No." She's not convinced. Her backpack is still plain green and cream.

The next day she announces that she wants to go to Chuck E. Cheese for her birthday party. (Apparently Mr. Cheese sponsors a portion of PBS Kids.) Soon she has a list of the things Santa should bring her for Christmas, and I wonder helplessly where she learned about the Super Barbie Cell Phone and the Fisher Price karaoke machine. Is my green girl turning into a material girl? I wonder. Two steps back.

Kate and I compromise at times. At our local food co-op, we buy a six-pack of sparkling fruit juice ($5.99) along with my bulk quinoa and turbinado sugar because Kate has a hankering for a Coke. "This soda is 100 percent fruit juice," I tell her. "There's no high-fructose corn syrup in it."

She shrugs. It's yummy, but it's all the same to her—Coke, sparkling fruit juice, sugar-and food-coloring-saturated "juice" boxes—as long as she has a cool drink in a cool container like her friends, she's fine.

At Target she is drawn to the Dollar Spot, where toys galore cost less than a visit from the Tooth Fairy. "Mom! Look at this toy, can I get it? Please? Please? Please?"

She wears me down, and I put the toy in the cart. Two steps back. We go home and I ask her to sort all the toys in her toy box into two piles: one to keep, and one to give to other kids who don't have as many toys as she does. When she calls me back to inspect the piles, I am pleased and surprised to see that they are almost equal in size. One step forward.

Friends with older children tell me to persevere. "She'll thank you later," they say. I hope they're right, that by teaching Kate how to do small things to conserve our planet's resources, she'll learn large lessons that she'll take with her when she's grown, living her own life. Two steps forward.