A friend bought a tape of children's songs for her rather precocious 3 1/2-year-old, recently. Oh this'll be nice, she thought. It's high time little Eggletina learned about rain forests.
They listened to the tape on the way back home from the store. By the time they got home, my friend was ready to hurl herself off a cliff in despair at the state of the world. And little Eggletina burst into tears every time she saw a chunk of firewood for months afterward.
Why? The kids' tape really laid it on thick. You know the way they do. The trees were weeping as the chain saws hacked at their trunks. The forests were crying for their lost trees. The furry little animals, etc., etc. There's something wrong with this approach, my friend thought. This can't be right.
If you're a parent, it's safe to say you want a lot of things for your children. You want them to be kind and thoughtful, responsible and capable, and lots of other good things. And if you care about the environment, you want them to care about it, too.
Too often, though, when it comes to talking to children about the environment, the emphasis is on the ugly. Pollution. Litter. Garbage. Extinction. Rain-forest destruction. Poaching. Before our children have a chance to appreciate what's beautiful in the world, we are bludgeoning them with what a dangerous place it is. Not a very good strategy, and no fun at all.
I propose that you just forget about all that bad stuff until your kids are at least 10 and maybe even 15. Instead, introduce them to all that is beautiful in the natural world.
What's that? The only world you know is the unnatural one? Then try to see nature through your children's eyes, and learn along with them.
A good way to start is by taking walks with your child. Walk around the block and look at flowers in the spring. Compare the shape of fallen leaves in the autumn. Watch the birds. Chase a few squirrels.
In their lovely book "Growing Up Green," authors Alice Skelsey and Gloria Huckaby put it like this:
"If you can tell him the funny-sounding name of a plant, or point out to him the pattern in the bark of a tree, how it differs from another -- one rough and cracked, and the other stretched smooth and taut like the hide of an animal -- or pick up a newly fallen seed pod to inspect, you have made the event, no matter how small, something special. A curiosity lodges, an interest begins, that if nourished will continue to grow."
Then you can move on to collecting: pine cones, seed pods, shells, pebbles, leaves, feathers, bones. Designate a place for the collection and don't mind if a few mangy things shed a little gunk on the floor. You always have the option of nixing anything really objectionable.
Collecting live specimens is trickier. Establish a 48-hour rule: No wild animals may be kept longer than 48 hours before they must be returned to where they came. Obviously, squirrels, raccoons, birds and other large animals don't qualify as 48-hour pets. But frogs and many kinds of insects can be safely held in a jar with holes poked in the lid. (Don't make the mistake of keeping frogs in an aquarium. Without something solid above water on which )) to stand,they will drown.)
As your children grow older, expand your activities. Build a birdhouse. Set up a bird feeder. Make a small terrarium. Press flowers. And here's the biggy: Start a garden.
A child's garden should be very small. If all the space you have is an apartment window box, fine. Let the child pick vegetables and flowers he or she likes, buy the seeds and help garden. Don't expect too much of your child, though. Pick up the slack yourself when you need too, don't nag, and do your best to make the garden a thoroughly happy experience for all.
Befriend your local librarian, and ask him or her to help you find books about nature, science and gardening that your children will enjoy. Look into nature classes at the zoo and through the parks department, too. These are usually fairly inexpensive, and children love them.
There's another aspect to helping your children grow up green. It's called setting a good example. If your idea of a good time is jetting around in a cigarette boat and tossing your beer cans out the window, chances are pretty good your kids are going to like that, too. If you recycle fairly consistently, try not to use disposa
bles, conserve electricity and water, moderate your driving, your children may grow up to do the same. Don't browbeat them about it. Just let your good habits rub off on them.
And don't be in a hurry to teach them about the ugly stuff. Unfortunately, they'll have all too many opportunities to learn about it as they grow up.
(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist -- on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink -- and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)