While environmental issues were on the radar screen when I was at school from the late 70s through to 1990, the issues were not as ominous a concern as they are today. The environment was still viewed by most as a backdrop to life, not an issue that threatened life itself.
These days, the major environmental issues that face us are largely intangible, yet their implications are far-reaching and life itself is clearly being threatened. Schools are enacting policies on environmental education and even school children are listing the state of the environment as one of their primary concerns.
But what can we, as parents do, to help our children with such an important shift in the world? I believe we can and should do plenty.
Schools should not be the primary custodian of our children’s environmental education. This education should start before they even arrive at school. It should start in the home and take advantage of the fact that the most powerful way for young children to learn is from the example of their parents.
Young children don’t need to understand climate change or endangered species in order to develop environmentally-sustainable habits and attitudes. If we guide them the right way at home, we can do our best to turn their conservationalist tendencies into second-nature. Just as most of us unintentionally contribute to environmental degradation through force of our daily habits, we can turn the tables such that the next generation unwittingly contribute to environmental sustainability.
The first step is to become aware of what we teach them on a daily basis. This means evaluating our own behaviour and the consistency of our message. In her book Eco-Wise & Wealthy, Joanna Tovia makes a strong point of this. “If we toss cigarette butts out of car windows, don’t bother recycling and ignore water restrictions…..we are teaching our children that our actions have no relevance to the world at large,” she says.
If you have been at all conscious in the last few years you know there is a lot to take on board. But put simply, are you teaching your children to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle?
Few could answer this question with a resounding ‘yes’, although as a nation, we have made some great strides.
We are getting better at reusing and recycling. Almost all Australian households now practice some form of recycling and 87 per cent of them reuse some of their waste, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
But it’s not all gold stars and hand-shakes yet. We still have a long way to go before our behaviour and message are consistent.
The ABS also report that consumption of goods, services and energy in Australia has increased. As such, we are still headed down the wrong path for refusing and reducing, all the while setting the wrong example for our children.
And more specifically, we are not holding back on consumption for our kids. According to recent figures from market research company IBISWorld, our annual spend on toys is a staggering $1.2 billion. That is a lot of dough when you consider the joy that can be elicited from a cardboard box, as well as the volumes of used, unwanted toys out there, just waiting for a home.
In addition to this, several mainstream Australian newspapers have recently reported a marked increase in spending on children’s clothing, particularly on designer and luxury brands. They report that the number of children’s clothing and footwear stores in Westfield shopping centres has grown by more than 50 per cent in the past two years, while websites and glossy magazines selling designer children’s wear have “mushroomed”.
This trend is linked to the older age of first time parents, where age equates to more money to spend on the kids. Apparently, these financially-empowered parents do not believe in hand-me-downs and view their children as a kind of fashion accessory.
This kind of attitude is more than a little concerning. After all, aren’t bursting bags of hand-me-downs our children’s first initiation into the world of pre-loved? And with parents who are unable to accept such standard seconds as clothes, will we breed yet another generation who value materialism and ‘newness’? A generation who have disdain for anything used?
We must remember that small children do not automatically define new and used objects by their worth. They are taught to do so. If you are from my era, then you probably remember the days when the council tip was a huge, disordered pile of junk. However, seen through the eyes of a child, it was a veritable mountain of treasure. The search for booty was almost as rewarding as the find itself. The idea of an item being someone else’s refuse never entered into the equation.
Although the days of fossicking at the tip are over, there is nothing to stop our children from experiencing the joy of used goods, if we let them.
No doubt the powerful marketing machine that taps into our deep-seated desire to do the ‘best’ for our children is at work here; making us believe that buying our children ‘stuff’, especially new ‘stuff’, equates to love and care. But for the sake of the planet, it is important that we are conscious and critical of the commercial drive behind these messages, and in the process teach our children to be so too. This is particularly important in an era where youth are being targeted by marketers like never before.
I understand it’s yet another thing for parents to think about when most are stretched to their limit. But it’s worth it. Giving our kids the gift of conservation, of a chance for a healthy planet, is a gift that will provide them with a life far better than any T-shirt ever will, no matter how cool the brand.
Resources / References:
ABS Release 4602.0 – Environmental Issues: People’s Views and Practices, March 2006.
ABS Release 4613.0 – Australia’s Environment: Issues and Trends, 2006.
Burke, Kelly, Gucci goo – meet the latest baby boomers; The Sydney Morning Herald, April 9, 2007.
Holdgate, Martin (1999) The Green Web – A Union for World Conservation. Earthscan Publications Ltd.
Oakley, Vivienne, Kids’ environmental concerns. The Daily Telegraph, 18 Feb 2007.
Ooi, Teresa, Rock-a-buy baby: retailers are hot to tot; The Weekend Australian, Jan 20-21, 2007.
Tovia, Joanna (2005) Eco Wealthy & Wise. Wrightbooks