Eco-Kids Taking on Parents to Go Green
Posted February 11, 2008 2:20 p.m. EST
Updated February 18, 2008 5:55 p.m. EST
Marika Martin is a vegetarian. So is her husband, Charles Gonzalez, who rides his bicycle to work every day in New York City traffic, rain or shine.
The couple cares deeply about the environment, but if you ask their kids, 12-year-old Sinika and 8-year-old Soren, it's sometimes not deeply enough.
"My hopeless mother is obsessed with plastic bags," said Soren, a third-grader and huge fan of Al Gore's global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
"A lot of plastic can't be recycled," chimed in his sister, who's in the seventh grade. "The turtles can get suffocated and it can go into the water. My dad gave her a cloth bag but she doesn't use it. Plastic drives me nuts!"
Say hello to Generation Green. They're young, well-researched and mad as heck - inspired by an outpouring of movies, TV shows, books, Web sites and "green classes" at school. They've been learning how to save the planet since toddlerhood, and they're taking on their parents to do more, do better.
While some parents fret that the pop culture tidal wave amounts to environmental indoctrination, others are looking for ways to accommodate their kids - and compromise when the price tag or the convenience factor come into play.
"I get it, I get it, I'm a bag lady," Martin said of her plastic-wrapped groceries. "But I'm always doing spontaneous shopping so it's hard. It isn't always feasible. Of course it's making me feel guilty. I know I shouldn't use them but in everyday living it's hard."
Tiffany Bluemle in Burlington, Vermont, knows exactly how she feels. She and her partner, Elizabeth Shayne, drive an environmentally friendly hybrid and live a generally green lifestyle. When their 8-year-old son, Will, wanted a "global warming" birthday party last year, they treated him to a cake decorated as Earth, a bike repair workshop for his guests and a pinata in the shape of a gas-guzzling Hummer that partygoers beat to the ground.
"He's adamant that I drive 55 but I'm naturally a speedster," Bluemle said. "We have a bumper sticker on the car saying `55 slows down global warming.' It's killing me."
Will has begged his parents to buy a new dishwasher to cut down on energy use. He imagines redesigning their house with solar and wind power and a passthrough of used kitchen sink water to flush toilets. Earth, he said, "is a lot of animals' home. If a lot of animals become extinct it would be hard for us to live."
Bluemle shares her young eco-warrior's passion but said she's careful not to over-promise while encouraging him to dream big.
"I want to make good on any pledges that I make," she said. "At this point it's pretty doable, yet we don't use a renewable form of energy to power the house. Very frankly, we don't have the money."
Compromise is key, said Julie Ross, a parent and family therapist in New York who has written three books on child-rearing.
Not every family can afford to install solar panels, but they can put on a sweater and turn down the thermostat, she suggested. If a new car isn't in the budget, a hybrid is out of the question, but carpooling to school or turning off the car rather than idling when stopped in the pickup line might work. Some parents think composting toilets are way too big a hassle, but they're willing to share a flush.
"I definitely hear a lot of frustration and anger in young kids," Ross said. "They don't feel powerful enough to be able to make changes themselves, yet they're being told that this is a big issue and they're going to have to deal with it. Parents have a tendency to dismiss the young."
Debra Weitzel, an environmental educator at Middleton High School in Middleton, Wisconsin, said feedback from parents of her students has been overwhelmingly positive when her assigned home-based "green" projects forces the family to participate.
One student meticulously charted his family's computer habits and was able to show a reduction in the electric bill after he trained his loved ones to shut down more often. Another student drafted energy-efficient plans for an addition to his family's house and his father was wowed by savings from his high-performing insulation recommendation.
"When they see dollars saved parents are happy. Parents of teenagers are looking for any way to connect and this is an area they can do that," said Weitzel, who teaches specialized classes for juniors and seniors and recently won an award from the non-profit National Environmental Education Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Weitzel has been the one to open the eyes of her students on compact fluorescent light bulbs, rain gardens to reclaim storm runoff from roofs and driveways and wheat-based composite counters and cabinets for rebuilding projects. But soon she'll have her hands on a generation that has cut its eco-teeth years before they step into her classroom.
Amanda Brosius, 6, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, recently watched a television special on the plight of polar bears losing their icy hunting grounds to global warming. Soon after, she could hear the shower running way too long in the apartment above, where a 7-year-old friend lives. The boy's long, water-guzzling showers prompted her to speak up.
"He doesn't care about the polar bears, but I do," Amanda said. "We're running out of fresh water and if you don't be careful the ice will never get frozen and the polar bears will have nowhere to go. Santa will have nowhere to live."
Recycling day in Amanda's apartment complex is Thursdays. Her mom, Trina Brosius, admits to sometimes tossing rather than recycling when metal and plastic piles up in the interim.
"My mom throws bottles away. Even cans," Amanda said.
"She just sold me out," mom admits.
Ross counsels parents not to beat themselves up.
"This is a relatively new arena," she said. "It's obviously a hot topic. Hear their ideas, concerns, criticisms and brainstorm with them. Write down their suggestions. Some are going to be completely impractical, but put them down anyway. Make a list and pick a few things that are manageable."
Gore, the former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner for his environmental work, released a young-adult book companion to his wildly popular film that ends with dozens of practical solutions. The book aimed at readers as young as 11 has sold thousands of copies and offers many of the same tips: use less hot water, unplug electronics from the wall, clean or replace furnace and air conditioner filters, only run the dishwasher with a full load on an energy-efficient setting.
Dora the Explorer's recent hour-long "Dora Saves the Mermaids" DVD has the popular Nick Jr. character, who is aimed at preschoolers, taking on an evil garbage-dumping octopus to save Marianna Mermaid's underwater kingdom. It's as simple as picking up the garbage and properly disposing of it, Dora encourages.
A new picture book out for Christmas, "When Santa Turned Green," has the roly-poly guy trading in his red suit for a green one and urging children the world over to take action after he discovers his leaky roof leads to a melting North Pole. A companion Web site allows kids to be "Greenius of the Week" by offering everyday tips such as using a thermos rather than plastic water bottles in lunch boxes.
"Get the kids talking in a non-judgmental way," Ross advised. "Schedule a meeting. Tell them, `Let's talk about it. Tell me what you know.' It's an awesome thing."
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