Ga-ga-goo-green? 10 tips to raise an eco-kid

By Marisa Belger
|  Wednesday, Apr 15, 2009  |  Updated 10:15 AM EDT
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Ga-Ga Goo-Goo Green-Green

The quickest way to teach your kid to recycle or to conserve energy is to do those things yourself.

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As my offspring stumbles and waddles his way from infancy to full-blown, upwardly mobile toddlerhood, I’m discovering that it’s never too early to steer him toward healthy, eco-conscious choices. Though I don’t doubt that W. is smart and capable, it’s clear that he’s not going to magically morph into a responsible citizen without some coaching and encouragement.

So instead of waiting until his vocabulary includes more than “Buh-Bye” and “Uh-oh” or until he stops eating sand or massaging his morning yogurt into his hair, I’ve decided to set the stage for eco-friendly living today. Using common sense and taking the advice of other Earth-minded mamas — like my green parenting mentor, Lynda Fassa, author of “Green Kids, Sage Families” — I’ve come up with 10 tips to set you on the path to raising a healthy, environmentally aware kid who will hopefully turn into an environmentally aware adult.

Be the kind of person you want your child to be.
The quickest way to teach your kid to recycle or to conserve energy is to do those things yourself.

Introduce your child to the source of the food she eats.
Tending a garden or visiting a farmer’s market can help your little one understand that vegetables don’t grow on supermarket shelves. From here you can begin emphasize the importance of choosing organic foods.

Choose better treats.
Another step in raising a healthy, eco-aware eater is to keep processed junk foods out of the house. To be clear, a lack of junk food doesn’t mean a lack of treats. I am decidedly pro-treat. But there are better ways to satisfy a craving than consuming a bag of nuclear orange cheese puffs and washing it down with a liter of root beer — which is how I spent pretty much every Friday of my 14th year on earth. There are homemade cookies and brownies made with organic ingredients. Ice cream made with organic milk and natural flavorings. Snack foods that are baked and free from hydrogenated oils. When you go organic you’re choosing foods that are easier on the environment — no pesticides or herbicides, no hormones — and easier on our bodies.

Don’t take your toilet paper for granted.
As soon as your munchkin has conquered the potty (if not sooner) begin to talk about where all that toilet tissue — not to mention napkins and paper towels — comes from: trees. Paper comes from trees. As your kid grows, you can continue the conversation by explaining that every tree that is cut down contributes to carbon emissions, which contributes to global warming, which is simply not good at all. But choosing paper products made from recycled paper — available in most grocery stores today — helps to save trees. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council has found that if every household in the U.S. replaced just one roll of virgin-fiber toilet paper with the recycled variety, over four hundred thousand trees would be saved. I can’t wait to tell my son that he’s actually saving trees by using recycled TP.

BYOB: Bring your own bag.
Before setting out on a grocery expedition, I always grab a couple of canvas bags so I can avoid adding more plastic to the world. And on the inevitable days when I forget to BMOB, I make a serious effort to swing back home before hitting the store. By doing so since his birth, I hope I am on the way to setting a clear eco-aware example for W.

Clean green.
He hasn’t even hit the two-year mark and I’m already fantasizing about ways that W. can help around the house. When he is finally ready to pitch in, he’ll find that mom and pops only use non-toxic cleaning products. If he asks why (and even if he doesn’t), I’ll break it down like this: Using cleaning supplies — laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, toilet bowl cleaner and the like — made from natural ingredients ensures that no harmful chemicals end up on our bodies or down the drain and into the earth and our water supply.

Reuse regularly.
Each of the 3 Rs — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — plays an essential role in living a greener life, but acquiring a child and the piles and piles of stuff that has accompanied said child, has made me especially fond of reusing. When it comes to kids — especially babies — most gear can be reused. Everything from clothes, toys and books, to furniture, bath gear and even the giant hunks of plastic that form Exersaucers and swing sets can have a second life. Resist the urge to buy something new or to dump something you own by using sources like Craigslist.org, Freecycle.com and Freepeats.org to find gently used items and to pass on your goods to those in need.

Throw a smart party.
Entertaining is often where eco-values get compromised. What’s a handful of plastic cups, plates and utensils for a good time? What’s a bunch of plastic balloons? But before you succumb to the single-use temptation think about the many birthday parties you’ll be hosting (W. turns two next year and give or take a couple of years, will most likely insist on some sort of celebration until he’s about 13 and too cool to party with his parents, which brings us to approximately 12 years of parties — and that’s for just one child) and then think about all that cake-coated plastic and all those popped balloons sitting in a landfill for decades.

A better option is to use reusable dishes and skip the balloons for multi-use alternatives like paper Chinese lanterns or biodegradable streamers (check out greenpartygoods.com for more ideas). And if you use canned or bottled beverages make sure you provide clearly marked recycling bins. Be sure to involve your child in the planning process so she begins to understand how a party comes to be and what happens when it’s over.

Play naturally.
Though the occasional plastic toy has made its way into our lives, I’ve made a concerted — though often mocked — effort to limit W.’s toys to those that are made from natural materials — wood, fabric and non-toxic paint. A good handful of my family members think I’m crazy to shun the Technicolor world of plastic playthings, but I’ve found that these toys are not only free from potential toxins like PVCs and phthalates, but they also last longer and allow more room for imaginative play. When a toy isn’t singing songs, flashing lights and wiggling across the floor, it seems that a child actually has to use his imagination when playing with it. Go figure.

Limit screen time.
Backing away from — and turning off — the TV and computer is positive for the environment (less energy used!) and positive for your child’s development (active play encourages mental, physical and social skills!). Start early by avoiding screens altogether and as the pull towards those flashy, moving images becomes greater, set clear limits on how much time your child can spend watching TV or using the computer. Overwhelmed? Intimidated? Check out Fassa’s “Five Rules for TV Success” in “Green Kids, Sage Families.”

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.

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