Lessons your little ones—and Mother Nature—will appreciate.

By Alexandra Lim-Chua Wee
March 28, 2019
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If you don't have outdoor space, try a community garden.
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It seems like now, more than ever, finding ways to live more sustainably is vital to our well-being-and our planet's. While making small changes to our everyday habits, like taking shorter showers or skipping the plastic straw, can have a big impact over time, educating the next generation on the importance of caring for our Earth is also key. But what does raising an eco-friendly kid actually mean?

For Sarah Robertson-Barnes, a Toronto mom of two boys (6 and 7), the goal is to teach her kids to be aware of their actions. "For me, it means raising kids who are both connected to the natural world and aware of what they consume, where it came from, who made it, and what will happen to it after we use it," says the former high school science teacher and freelance writer. "Children are fascinated by nature and deeply care for the Earth. They want to know how everything works and literally ground us by making us stop, look, and appreciate. We should follow their lead."

Read on as three eco-friendly parents share their tips on raising kids to grow up green.

Teach the Five Rs

Chances are your kids are already learning about the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling at school, but Robertson-Barnes suggests going beyond that at home. "The most important things we can teach our kids and ourselves is to refuse what we do not need," she tells us. "This might look like first discussing why we want to buy something, and waiting [to see if we really want it]." The other forgotten R? Respect. "This is for the materials in an item, the planet it came from, and where it'll return to," Robertson-Barnes says. A simple way to teach little ones this: Have them help with sorting recycling or putting scraps into the compost bin, then explain why they're being sorted here as opposed to the trash.

Embrace Their Curiosity

You know your kids are already brimming with questions. For April Dickinson, a Seattle mom of two who works for a local research and public policy organization, these questions can be the perfect place to start. "To me, raising eco-friendly kids means encouraging my kids (ages 3 and 7) to be curious about the world and their place in it," says Dickinson, who also happens to be the only "zero-waster" in her family of four. In other words, teach not only to compost, recycle, and reuse, but also why all those actions are so important.

For Lacey Burbage, mom to one 3-year-old and one 7-month-old, tying in questions about where everyday products come from can also be a teaching moment. "Learn the story of your stuff," says the Las Vegas-based blogger behind Naturally Modern Life. "Ask who made this? How was it made? What was the true cost? Do I need it? All these questions can help us be more mindful and are a good jumping-off point to being more eco-friendly."

Volunteer Together

Whether helping at a local park clean-up or sorting books for donations at the school, Dickinson says, "Bring your kids volunteering with you so they can see the impact of their efforts." Not only is volunteering a fun and free family activity, but it's also a great way to connect with neighbors and your community for a good cause. Need some ideas? Here are 12 of our favorite random acts of kindness to get you inspired.

Remember "Sharing Is Caring"

It's likely your little ones already know all about this motto, but do they know it's an eco-friendly one, too? From borrowing books at the library to hosting a local toy or clothing swap, teaching your kids the power of borrowing and sharing over buying and owning can be a valuable lesson around the topic of waste. For Robertson-Barnes and her family, turning to their neighborhood's Buy Nothing Group is the perfect way to find things they need that others don't, and swap out items they no longer use themselves. (You can find your nearest Buy Nothing Group or learn about starting your own here.)

Get Creative in the Kitchen

As the central hub in many homes, the kitchen is a great place to find new eco-friendly habits, from reducing food waste to nixing single-use plastics. "Eat leftovers, meal plan, and get creative," says Burbage. "Last night's dinner can be remade into today's lunch with a little creativity." She also recommends finding ways to see food differently. "Did you know you can eat strawberry tops? Add them to a salad or smoothie! Pesto or chimichurri can also be made from beet greens and carrot tops. A few hundred years ago, nothing went to waste. Our grandmothers used up every part of everything. It's only recently that we have been throwing a part of something away because we've never eaten it before."

Tell Kids It's About More Than Trash

While part of sustainable living means working to reduce your environmental footprint, Dickinson reminds her kids that it's also about recognizing the larger impact on not just the planet, but other people. "We have been taught to consider the environment as separate from humans, to protect the environment for the sake of plants and animals. But this separation is harmful. Humans are the environment," she says. "Therefore, the choices we make to be kinder to the planet directly impact not only our own families but on communities all over the world, from indigenous people to people living in poverty."

To help her kids understand these values, Dickinson recommends talking to kids about fairness, how different people have access to different things, and learning about all the ways people around the world work and live. Recognizing what they have that others may lack is also a way to help kids appreciate things more and value treating them well.

Don't Let It Stress You Out

While noble, vowing to be more mindful about what you throw away, starting to bike everywhere, and switching to plant-based eating all at once can certainly be overwhelming. And, frankly, it's not possible for every family. Instead, focus on starting small. "Start with one thing that you are able to change, and begin looking for an alternative," suggests Burbage. "Buying produce often? See if you can start sourcing some it locally. Using plastic shopping bags? Pull out that old promotional tote bag that's been sitting in your closet and use that instead. Start small with what you can change."

For Robertson-Barnes, this includes acknowledging that there will be bumps along the way. "The biggest challenge to raising eco-friendly kids so far is what we see other kids may have, want, or are doing," she says. "But this is true of all parenting!" Instead of drawing comparisons, she suggests giving yourself time to adjust while making those small changes. "Go at your own pace with what is doable for your family. Becoming more eco-friendly is a shift in mindset more than anything else, so give yourself the grace to build your habits and forgive mistakes along the way."

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