Nobody I know just loves picking up trash.
Most every kid I know (and many adults) would blithely step over or around a piece of trash instead of picking it up. Ask a kid around here what they think about plastic trash in the ocean and you’re likely to get a shrug or a blank stare – or they’ll tell you, “It’s terrible,” because that’s what they think you want them to say.
It’s not just children though. Kids inherit their indifference from their adults.
The Yale Climate Communication studies suggest that around a third of the U.S. population still doesn’t think anything untoward is happening with the Earth’s climate, and half of us don’t think that climate change could ever harm anyone in the U.S.
Without introducing and including kids in environmental conservation early and regularly, without modeling the behavior yourself, and without exposing children to a wide range of worldviews on the topics of natural resources and sustainability, it is probably not possible to create a stewardship ethic in children.
They’ll grow up into just another generation that steps over trash instead of picking it up, doesn’t think twice about throwing away plastic bottles instead of recycling or reusing them, and dismisses the possibility of climate change.
So, how do we encourage an ethic of stewardship in our kids?
Nature exposure – Children have to be intimate with nature in order to fall in love with it to the point that they are ready and able to think about sustainability and stewardship. Without a store of nature-based experiences and observations, there is no way for them to think about environmental problems in a valid way.
Get your kids outside, go canoeing, backpacking, and swimming with them. Go to places that are amazing and pristine but also let them see places that are damaged or in need of help.
Travel – Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Travel with your kids as much as possible. Take them to see how other people deal with natural resources and trash and how they think about sustainability.
Limit their sedentary screen time – Don’t just take their phones and video games away or they’ll replace that with some other sedentary indoor activity (like playing cards). Replace indoor sedentary tech time with something active and outdoors that provides an opportunity for meaningful contact with nature.
I recommend Scouts but you could probably get similar benefit out of soccer, swim team, or other sports.
Include kids in conservation early and regularly – especially the fun or exciting learning events (not just the nasty trash picks). Again, the Scouting organizations provide great opportunities but if you don’t want to do Scouting, there are other organizations.
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, & Parks offers summer camps at the Museum of Natural Science in Jackson (www.mdwfp.com/museum/learn-teach/summer-camps/) and youth hunts throughout the state (www.mdwfp.com/education-outreach/youth-programs/).
The Lake Thoreau Environmental Center in Hattiesburg (www.usm.edu/lake-thoreau-environmental-center/) also has numerous summer camps and other opportunities to expose children to nature and conservation.
Model the behavior – Let them see that you value that ethic enough to actually do something about it yourself. Kids are sure to rebel if you tell them, “Do as I say – not as I do!”
Consider volunteering with local conservation groups, like Scouts, Flower Clubs and Beautification committees, Scenic Rivers, or Pearl Riverkeepers.
Be the change that you want to see!
Exhort and encourage – As they get older, exhort and encourage them to choose their own pet environmental issues and to figure out their own way (not your way) to work on those problems.
Encouragement cannot just be words. Be prepared to put your money where their mouths are! Let them choose the project (perhaps with some guidance) and invest your time and money into their project without taking it over.
Allow them to recruit you as transportation and manual labor (not as supervisors or bosses) in their projects.
This millennial generation is not just a bunch of clueless slackers. They represent the best hope for humanity to fix the mess that the past couple of generations have made of the Earth.
No generation after them will ever have better power or leverage to make environmental change than they do right now. They just need your encouragement and support to take their place in the real world making a real difference!
Originally Published in Enterprise-Journal Newspaper