Before I had a baby, I had a lot of ideas about what it would mean to make conscientious parenting decisions. Once the imaginary baby became real, though, I quickly realized how challenging it can be to maintain my principles as a person who worries about Earth’s future and needs to get through the days with my head above water. When it’s so much easier to choose the path of least resistance—which is too often the most convenient, least environmentally sustainable option—is it possible to live sustainably without sacrificing comfort and joy while raising young children? These environmentalist parents say yes. Here’s how they’re doing it.
For journalist Bridget Shirvell, 37, and her 3-year-old daughter, Charlotte, it means always bringing three bags along with them when they take walks on the beach near their Connecticut home: one for treasures, one for trash, and one to collect seaweed for composting. Shirvell, who reports on parenting, climate solutions and food, sees this as an age-appropriate and powerful way to teach Charlotte how to care for the earth as she enjoys it.
“There are so many skills [to learn] in that simple act,” she reflects. And by incorporating the lessons into an experience that is both routine and joyful, Shirvell believes they’re more sustainable. “If it's part of the fabric of their daily lives at this age, it just becomes a habit. From time to time, I still find composting a struggle in a way that I don't with recycling, because I grew up recycling.”
Michigan parents James Pollerana, 39, and Abbie Rumery, 38, take a similarly intentional approach to parenting their kids, preschooler Roe and newborn Ochoa. Pollerana says he and Rumery “resist the convenience of traditional single use items” as much as possible. “First we had to figure out where to get and how to use cloth diapers," he says. "The list grew from there: reusable snack pouches, cloth napkins, beeswax food wraps.”
While he realizes the kids are too young now to understand what they’re doing, Pollerana believes their efforts will soon imprint on them, and hopes they’re able to eventually connect the dots as to why they live the way they do. “Kids learn from our actions more than our words, so it’s all about living the lessons you hope to instill in them," Pollerana says. In pursuit of ensuring natural wonders exist for their kids to enjoy years down the line, Pollerana says "doing our part to protect the planet is the least we can do."
Shirvell, who’s currently working on a book about raising children in the climate crisis, says all you can do is just that: your best, with the environment’s and your family’s needs in mind. “I'm going to make a lot of my decisions based on what the harm is to the environment, but also my family's overall well-being and what I'm capable of doing in this moment. That's going to look different for different people, and it's also going to look different for me at different points in my daughter's life,” Shirvell says. “Like, I know how bad flying is, but my sister lives in Austin. I want her to have a relationship with my child. So we're going to get on a plane to go to Austin. When my sister comes up here, she drives, but I can’t drive with a 3-year-old by myself.”
Karen Mahrous, 39, a New Jersey-based corporate and environmental sustainability expert and co-host of the RedSkies podcast, agrees that doing your best consistently and within your means is the best impact a young family can expect to have. “I think our responsibility is to utilize the tools and resources that are available to us to do better. And by that, I mean I don't drive an electric vehicle; I should for the environment. But when I went to buy my car, I was priced out of the EV market for the type of (larger) car I needed to get. So I did my best. I drive a hybrid.”
Ultimately, the burden is on the government and big companies to make those resources more accessible, Mahrous stresses. “It's the responsibility of governments to provide incentive programs to people to utilize electric vehicles, to provide incentive programs to car manufacturers, [and on] car manufacturers to make the EVs cheaper, and to make EV charging stations more readily available. The infrastructure needs to be there, and then it is my duty to make the right decisions.”
According to Mahrous, the most powerful thing you can do as a consumer is whatever you can to defy the label: consume less, as best you can. “If we can find ways to reduce our waste, we can actually be more impactful. The biggest way to reduce landfills is to stop throwing things away. Therefore stop buying things, especially single-use items like diapers.” Before her daughter, Mona, was born, Mahrous joined local Buy Nothing and parenting groups on Facebook, which makes living sustainably much less burdensome. “Mona is about 20 months old, and I literally, just for the first time, bought her clothes myself,” she muses.
Mahrous believes that in the long run, the efforts of mindful parents today, combined with real change in policy and production, will make it easier for our kids to maintain, as much as we can, a healthy planet (or at least, make it easier for our kids to adapt to a changed planet). “My hope is that by the time my daughter is making her own choices, that the decision to be sustainable is invisible to her. Meaning that the easiest decision is also the most sustainable decision and it's no longer a choice between sustainability and convenience.”
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