A few years ago, I read about an eight-year-old who studied elephant poaching in school and made a poster for her local grocery store. The slogan read, “Save the elephants, don’t buy Ivory Soap.” I’ve never looked at an eight-year-old the same way since.
As an environmental educator, I used to teach eight-year-olds about the perils of elephant poaching, rainforest destruction, and global warming. I had a degree in natural science—but not in child development. What did I think I was accomplishing by dumping my environmental concerns on the shoulders of kids who still believe in the tooth fairy?
Looking back, I believe I was doing those kids more harm than good. Author David Sobel coined a term, “ecophobia.” It’s the fear of nature kids develop when their primary contact with the natural world is hearing bad news about the environment. Right…
If I wanted to inspire conservation action, I needed to change my ways, but how? I came across some research by psychologist Louise Chawla. She wanted to know what had gone on in the childhoods of adults who are good environmental citizens. She found two things most common: 1) they had had free-time to explore the vacant lot, marshy ditch or woods down the street, and 2) they had an adult in their lives who was enthusiastic about the natural world. I understand now that what turned me into a good steward today was a childhood spent playing in the field and creek—and having a dad who knew that finding a crawdad under a rock was better than finding treasure.
So that’s what I was doing when I was eight-years old. Looking under rocks, climbing trees, and picking wild flowers. I didn’t know a thing about the Clean Air Act that was being debated in congress at the time. I didn’t hear a lot of environmental doom and gloom. But I built a relationship with nature and I grew up to care.
I treat my own kids like the child I was. We plant stuff in the garden, camp once in a while and, since no electronics are allowed until after dinner, they end up riding bikes and sitting in trees for long stretches of time.
My kids turn off the water when they brush their teeth and turn out the lights when they leave a room. But we consider these actions to be good “environmental manners” not earth-saving, life and death manifestos.
I believe eight-year-olds have the right to grieve the loss of a pet or grandparent—without also grieving the loss of the world’s rainforests. I believe eight-year-olds should feel responsible for sorting recyclables, not for solving global warming.
Now, I believe this: Let’s allow kids to love the earth before we ask them to save it.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.