The theory that children are less likely to grow up to be committed environmentalists if they learn about ecological welfare issues at a young age, is not mine. This isn't an opinion that I've arrived at of my own accord in the shower, but rather one that actually goes against everything that I believed to be "right" until relatively recently.
I've always felt that by home educating Quinn I'd have the opportunity to guide her towards life as a global citizen, not just in terms of her relationship with people across the planet, but also in terms of her attitudes towards the preservation of the planet itself. I've followed keenly as I've seen home educating families with slightly older children approaching global warming and plastic pollution as a part of their studies, and imagined doing the same in the coming years.
It was only after reading the work of David Sobel, which lead to me seek out other bodies of research and writing on the topic, that I've been able to reevaluate my thinking, and unlearn what I thought to be true about raising an environmentalist.
As I said in my original Instagram post:
I've dived deep into environmental sciences, child psychology, trauma recovery, and various topics in between, because I am DESPERATE to get this right, to raise her to be a passionate environmentalist. At the moment, all research available concludes that this approach = the best outcome.
Children exposed to the reality of our climate crisis and other environmental states of emergency at a young age, are less likely to engage in environmental activism, less likely to support organisations promoting environmental revolution, and find it harder to respond emotionally to environmental campaigns, than their peers who learned about these issues at 11+. Young children are perfectly able to learn facts relating to environmental issues and to 'say all the right words' when taught about the danger of plastic to sea turtles, but their early education may actively decrease their likelihood of ever doing anything about it.
This sounds alarming and counter intuitive at first, but it makes sense. When a child's relationship with nature is still DEVELOPING (until around 9-11), information relating to an immediate threat to that relationship, triggers a self-preservation response. The trauma management centres of the brain seek to protect the individual, by ceasing the development of their relationship with the natural world, and putting up a wall between the child and 'dangerous' worries. However, when a child's relationship with nature is fully formed and secure, then threats to that relationship are resisted (the child will act & protect).
One of the greatest mistakes we might be making for the future of our planet, is exposing young people to the realities of our problems too early, stunting the development of the next generation's environmentalists.
I had a few queries and challenges to this way of thinking - and I totally get it, because I didn't feel at all comfortable with this approach at first, especially when these are such big issues for me. What I do know, however, is that getting environmental education right is incredibly important, and I'm driven to side with the science, and with the psychologists, child development experts and researchers in this field, rather than what feels good in the moment. In fact, now that I've read as much as I've been able to find readily available on the topic, it makes so much sense to me.
I absolutely do involve Quinn in positive environmental action. We make a lot of consumer choices that reduce our impact on the planet; buying less plastic, using reusable options where available, taking our own bags shopping. Quinn witnesses this as part of our everyday family life. Normalising things like reusable coffee cups, for example, is important. Lengthy conversations about why we use reusable coffee cups, is not. My aim for now is for Quinn to simply accept that we use these cups when we buy coffee, and not the cups that are available in the cafe. We'll get to the big, scary details when she's older, but at the moment, her love for the ocean is still forming and developing (perhaps at an accelerated rate as we live by the sea) and I don't want to stop that in it's tracks by telling her about plastic islands.
One point that was raised by a couple of people, was that children, being naturally curious, will ask questions in response to these mindful choices.
If the child asks "why do we use these cups when other people have the paper ones?", should we respond dishonestly to avoid providing too much information? Or just shrug it off and not use this as an opportunity for positive environmental education?
As I mentioned before, this isn't my research, and thus how I implement the information I've gathered is personal, but I uphold honesty as an important and respectful parenting tool. I always seek to give honest answers to a child's questions, regardless of the topic. I've yet to find anything that can't be approached truthfully in an age appropriate manner for any child.
We recycle: visibly and consistently. We have three bins indoors, and Quinn knows what goes in which bin. She knows that some materials can be recycled and others can not. I have explained recycling thus:
"Some things can be used again when we've finished with them. A magazine can be recycled and turned in to new paper for the printer, or toilet paper, or even another magazine. Some things can not be recycled, and when we've finished with them, they're rubbish forever."
We also compost our food waste, and I've been involving Quinn in this process. Again, this is explained quite simply:
"Our food and garden waste can be composted. It rots down, with help from worms and slugs, and can then be used to help new plants to grow."
By introducing the positive benefits of recycling and composting, I've already put these forward as preferable, without needing to go in to details about the consequences of not engaging in them.
This provides honest, age appropriate answers for most questions about our consumer behaviours.
"we use reusable cups, because the ones that the cafe provide can not be recycled; so they'll make a lot of rubbish that can't be used for anything else in the future."
"we've started getting our toilet paper delivered in cardboard boxes and paper wrappers because these can be recycled, so they'll be used again. The wrapper on the toilet paper that we used to buy can not be recycled, so it just creates more rubbish."
"we use metal straws instead of plastic because we can use the metal straws lots of times, but we could only use a plastic straw once, which would mean a lot of straws ending up in the rubbish."
I avoid using phrases such as "better for the planet" as I think this leads to more questions. Generally speaking, I'm hugely in favour of lots of questions and long, rambling conversations, but in this area, I keep it short and sweet.
I also stick to a "if I'm not asked, I don't share" policy. Therefore there will be no "Hey, Quinn, let's learn about climate change!", which was what I'd previously planned.
There are often other positive benefits that can be listed without the need to provide a damning reason to avoid the alternative. For example, rather than talking about exhaust fumes polluting our atmosphere, we can think of multiple reasons to walk or cycle to our destination, that engage children in environmentally conscious choices without guilt or shame.
It's important as well to consider that sometimes you won't make the "best" choice. Children can understand that cycling and walking are preferable because they provide us with opportunities to move our bodies, get fresh air, study the nature around us etc. but sometimes you're going to be in a car. A child who's previously been given a whole bunch of information about what transport is doing to our Earth, can very easily become anxious about their own car usage, at a time when they have very little say in where they go and how.
I also want to cover the fact that not all people in our communities will engage in the same environmental behaviours that we do. There might be a number of reasons for this, including ignorance, but there will be plenty of people for whom the most environmentally friendly options aren't available. Disabled people, those living on very low or non existent income, pregnant people, individuals facing personal hardship and difficult times, those suffering from addiction, people with larger bodies, can all face challenges in approaching environmentalism. Providing children with too much information about how bad it is to use certain products, or how neglectful it is not to behave in a certain way, risks creating a culture of ableism, classism, fat-shaming and even racism in our homes. At secondary school age children are not only emotionally capable of engaging with climate crisis, but also of empathising with those in their community for whom the same choices are more difficult.
Quinn will learn about the bleak stuff, when she's older. I'm not advocating for never telling her about why we don't buy Pringles, but when we do have these conversations she'll be old enough to actually do something about it.
I feel like her knowledge of recycling, composting, and their benefits, is getting us through at the moment. These two norms within our family culture generally provide answers to most questions about further choices that we make.
The other element to this, for our family and many others, is animal agriculture and potentially veganism/plant based lifestyle.
Vegan and plant based families are far more likely to have conversations about the impact of animal agriculture on our environment, than families who consume animal products.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation on our planet. It contributes more to the climate crisis than every car, van, lorry and airplane combined. It is potentially the leading contributing factor in the world hunger crisis. I understand why families who've decided not to play a part in this, would want to speak to their children about why. This is especially true when those children may have very different diets and family culture to a lot of their friends.
I am purposefully not going to talk about veganism here, because it's a pretty divisive issue and it would also make this post far too long for anyone to ever want to read to the end! However, if you'd like to discuss raising vegan children, and having conversations about veganism with young children in a way that doesn't nurture guilt, shame, or social isolation, then my inbox is always open! I'd also refer you to the paragraph above about ableism/classism/racism.
The most important thing for me is being a supportive force in the development of Quinn's ecophilia (her innate love of the natural world) in this stage of her development.
Research shows that a child's relationship with nature continues to develop, and is vulnerable, until around 9 years. Get it rooted in before this age, and chances are this will be a life-long love affair. If, however, children fail to develop an authentic nature connection by 9, the resulting ecophobia (a fear, discomfort, or deep disliking for being in natural environments) can be irreversible.
Introducing themes surrounding the climate crisis and other environmental states of emergency before this relationship is cemented (even if you're also providing lots of lovely, nature rich activities and time spent in wild spaces) has been shown to carry significant risks to long-term environmental engagement.
So, if you were hoping to see Quinn and I freaking out over melting glaciers and the widespread death of orangutans, I'm afraid we are going to disappoint. This doesn't mean to say I won't be crying myself to sleep or having an anxiety attack in my car over the same issues. I'm just not going to be providing books or lesson plans to cover these issues before she's 11-ish.