Teaching Your Child About the Environment

The New Bogeyman

When my son, Sammy, was six years old, his favorite cartoon character was Sonic the Hedgehog. My husband and I carefully monitor what Sammy watches on TV, but Sonic seemed okay. Then one day Sammy raced into the kitchen, his eyes wide with alarm.

“Mom,” he said, panting, “if they cut down the rain forest, will we really die?”

I gathered him into my arms. How could I soothe my son? I couldn’t picture myself saying: Don’t worry honey, when we’ve destroyed the rain forest and are gasping for breath, God will take us to heaven..

I wondered, were other kids scared? Were we on the brink of disaster? I had to find out.

As a research scientist, I had access to a library filled with recent journals. I read articles on the environment and talked to colleagues who had spent their careers studying these problems. Let me share what I found.

First, my son is not alone–many children are scared. A Roper study found that 51 percent of children ages 9 to 17 were “very worried about harming the natural environment.”

One mother sadly described her son’s second-grade Christmas assembly program: “the children had been given an assignment to write on, ‘What I would give to the world.’ One after the other,” she wrote in the Omaha World Herald, “these children talked about the need for a new earth because we had destroyed ours through pollution, the disappearing rain forests, and the elimination of the ozone layer. I had never seen so many seven-year-old children filled with such angst. There was no peace, love, joy…only worry remained.”

Older kids are worried, too. In 1993 a group of 150 students, ages ten to fifteen, used an Internet program called KIDLINK to discuss the future of the planet. Teachers were surprised by the number of children who saw only a bleak, pessimistic future. Some of the educators “were alarmed at the hopelessness evident in many of the students’ words.”

Why are children so worried? So pessimistic? I believe that it’s because they are inundated with scary stories about environmental disasters like global warming, the growing ozone hole, the disappearing rain forest, and the loss of endangered species.

As Christians, we know that God does not want us to live in fear. How can we keep our children from being afraid of harming the environment? Or from feeling guilty every time they eat meat or sleep in a wooden bed? How can we give them God’s perspective on the world’s environmental woes?

First, we need to understand God’s perspective. The Bible says that God created the earth, then made us stewards of His creation. According to Webster’s Dictionary, a steward is a person who manages another’s property. Like gardeners who care for the estate of a beloved master, we are called care for God’s creation. .

Second, our children need to know that they are precious to God. Many leaders of the environmental movement believe that human beings have no more intrinsic value than a hydrangea bush. But we are different from the beasts and plants. God imparted a piece of himself when He made us and He sent His son to die for us.

Third, children–and parents–need to know that God is ultimately in control of every aspect of our lives. He is a loving God, who cares deeply for all of His creation and has a purpose for everything he has made. He alone has the power to heal and redeem our lives–and our planet.

Once your children understand their role in God’s creation, find practical ways for your family to be good stewards of God’s world. Here are ten suggestions to get you started:

1. Spend time outdoors. As a family, take a walk in the forest or meadow. Observe the animals, plants, and insects. Look for animal tracks in the wet mud along a riverbank. Learn about the flora and fauna in your area so you can understand how God designed his creation to work together.

2. Recycle your bottles, cans, paper, and plastic bags. Older children can sort recyclables; younger ones can bag newspaper.

3. Start a simple compost pile. Our family composts leaves, grass, and yard clippings, but you can also compost fruits and vegetables.

4. Organize your church to pick up litter, plant trees, or do other projects to enhance God’s creation in your neighborhood.

5. Kids who like detective work can trace the path of rain water in your neighborhood. City officials have maps that show the location of storm drains. Local maps show rivers and streams. You can visit local streams to see which way the water flows.

We traced the storm drain in front of our house to the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay, and finally the Atlantic Ocean. Yet carpet cleaning companies in our area routinely dump their sudsy waste water in the storm drains. Most adults we asked thought that storm drains flow to sewage treatment plants. No wonder people dump soapy water, motor oil, and paint thinner down the storm drain!

6. Consider making a wildlife habitat in your backyard or school yard. The National Wildlife Federation has an information packet that give step by step instructions on creating a habitat for animals, butterflies, hummingbirds, frogs and other creatures. The schoolyard habitat program can be reached at 1-800- 822-9919; the backyard habitat program at 1-800-432-6564. Or write them at National Wildlife Federation, Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, 8925 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, VA 22184-0001.

7. Consider buying a living Christmas tree. Many nurseries sell trees growing in large pots. Living trees can be used for several years, then planted in your yard or local park.

8. Bike or walk instead of driving the car. You’ll help the environment by saving gas and oil–and get exercise.

9. Resist our culture’s consumer mentality by teaching your children to take care of their toys. Buy quality toys and encourage your children to do the same when they spend their allowance. Clean and repair old toys together, then recycle them at a yard sale or give them to a charity rather than throwing them away.

10. Work for fair and balanced environmental legislation. If you home school, consider assigning this type of work to your older children. They’ll learn about the legislative process, too. Even kids can write letters to the editor of their local newspaper.

Hands-on stewardship of God’s creation gives children a sense of accomplishment–and gives them ammunition against those who would accuse them of not caring about the earth.

Finally, Let your children know that the environment is cleaner today than it was 25 years ago. If you’re old enough to remember, tell them what it was like in the 1970s when many of our cities were blanketed by dirty brown smog and Boston Harbor was so polluted it burned. Communicating a sense of progress will give them hope.

Let them know that environmental organizations often exaggerate problems to keep people focused on the problem and motivated to help. Countless dire predictions from the 1970s did not come true.

When I examined the scientific literature on global warming and the ozone hole I found that neither situation is as dire as we have been told (see sidebar).

Communicate God’s commitment to truth and His ability to solve problems when humans think there is no solution.

Finally, keep your children from being inundated by too many scary environmental messages from TV, books, and schools. Saturday morning cartoons, as I discovered three years ago, are a prime culprit. Studies show that nine out of ten cartoons with environmental themes depict scary scenarios of doom and gloom. The bad guy is usually a businessman or, worse yet, a scientist, busily pillaging the earth. Of the popular Saturday morning fare, Captain Planet has the worst record.

Parents need to monitor books, too. Children’s book critic Patty Sinclair reviewed over 2,000 children’s books on the environment and found an “abundance of pessimistic books that treat theories, such as global warming, as fact.”

Schools can be another source of scary stories. If you’re concerned about what your child is learning in school, ask to see the curriculum or confer with the teacher. Many teachers aren’t aware of the tendency to exaggerate environmental problems.

By following this approach, you’ll help your child understand how he or she fits into God’s creation and what they can do to help. So the next time they hear about the disappearing rain forest, they’ll be able to say, I know that’s a problem, but my family is recycling and this year we bought a living Christmas tree. And God, who loves me and made me, is in charge. If I follow Him with all of my heart, I know that He’ll take care of me and my world.

SourcesRoper Center Study, December 1994, questioned 1300 children, ages 9 through 17, from non-disadvantaged area. 51% said they were very worried about harming the natural environment.

The mother in Omaha is Merrilee A. Boyack, her article Planting Fear in Little Hearts: School Kids Burdened With Too Many Worries, appeared in the Omaha World Herald, 10/23/94.

Information on KIDLINK was published in K-12 EDUCATION, Nebraska, Empowering Students to Address Environmental Fears. The leaders were the KIDFORUM Coordinator, Lara Stefansdottir of Iceland, and Joann Wilson, a computer teacher from Nebraska.

© 1997 Elizabeth Moll Stalcup

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