When my kids were still pretty little, a section about teaching environmentalism in Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods really struck me.
When we teach children to worry about the environment before we teach them to love it, Louv thought, we paralyze them.
Let’s use the example of the rainforest. Kids are often confronted with dire warnings and grim descriptions about destruction from cutting trees for lumber and clearing ground for cattle. But your average kid in, say, Maine, can’t really do much about the rainforest. Their brains can’t even comprehend the complexity of the problem. Asking them to worry about something they can’t control or understand builds hopelessness.
Why are we teaching environmentalism through the lens of hopelessness?
If you want to teach kids to care about the earth, Louv says, teach them about their own backyard. Teach them to find the beauty that surrounds them. Teach them to care about it. Then teach them to save it.
This struck me as very good, helpful advice. And if you know anything about parenting, you know that advice that is good and helpful is in short supply.
So, first, I taught my kids to look at the birds in our woods. I taught them to find deer tracks in the snow. I taught them to listen to peepers, catch tadpoles, and chase frogs. We threw rocks into the ocean and explored tidepools. We caught fish. We watched hawks. We learned about our home.
Then, I taught them to take care of their home. I showed them how to be quiet and calm so animals wouldn’t flee. We talked about staying on the trail to keep the plants safe. They learned to reel in a fish without damaging it so it could be released. We took them to harbor clean-ups and roadside clean-ups and invasive species removal days. We built a sense of stewardship and familiarity, all within a few miles of our house.
And we hiked. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. While we hiked, we talked.
We talked about what the land looks like, what it used to look like, how people have changed it for good and bad. We talked about things that make life harder for animals and things that make life easier for animals. We talked about the fundamentals of nature, about how one species is dependent on the next and about how we are all connected together.
And I did it all without singing The Circle Of Life. (Okay, maybe once. Or twice. Definitely not more than three times.)
Not once did I use the word “environmentalism,” but that’s what I was teaching them. I was teaching them to recognize, understand, and preserve the land and critters they depend on. I just wasn’t using a big, difficult, politically-loaded word to teach it. Because, ultimately, I don’t think it’s a big, difficult, politically-loaded thing. I think we need to learn to care about the things around us, and then from that caring springs everything else.
Now, sure, others have taught them about the amazing and mysterious animals in remote corners of the the earth and the threats we all face. Their Wild Kratts devotion alone guaranteed that they have deep knowledge of everything from ring-tailed lemurs to Emperor penguins, from over-hunting to climate change.
But they understand the importance because they’ve seen it in their own backyard.
So when I asked them if they’d like to follow our traditional Friends of Acadia roadside clean-up with a march against climate change this past weekend, they jumped at the chance. Not because climate change affects effects polar bears and penguins, but because they know that what affects polar bears and penguins will ultimately affect them.
And they learned it one hike at a time.