“Our teacher says we are destroying the planet. It’s so bad we may not be able to breathe the air and it will be super hot in the future.”
On a typical day as we leave the carpool line I always enjoy conversation with my kids. The topics span current events, politics, fun historical facts, math, what they had for lunch. It’s always a special time for me to catch up with them and get insight it to their lives.
As Earth Day approaches my children are talking more and more about their ecological footprint at school. At home we reinforce the responsibility we all have to preserve our environment. We talk about protecting vulnerable animals in their habitat as part of school projects. We talk about smog and car emissions polluting the air in the cities where we have lived. I find that being concrete is the best approach to teaching our children about environmental issues. My favorite example to use when talking to them about waste and preserving our resources is our family use of water.
My son is an avid soccer player who loves long hot showers after games and practices. Sometimes he will sit in the bathroom with the shower running for at least 5 minutes before getting in. Occasionally there are full concerts and musical renditions while water is wasted. I am sure that many parents can relate to this. In order to solve this problem we started using a timer on our cellphones to limit the amount of time and water he uses. Addressing this behavior gave us the opportunity to talk about the scarcity of water in many areas of the world. I believe his eyes initially glazed over as we talked about children in a far off places that walk to a river with water jugs rather than run showers at home. We brought the issue closer to home, discussing children right here in America who have limited water due to the costs of water usage and poverty. He was amazed that we pay for the water we use. We talked about the many reasons families face water scarcity. This is not only a poverty issue, or the plight of families in far off places. I explained that we have severe drought or a dry season we limit how often we water the lawn or get water at restaurants. I could see things making more sense to him.
Our lessons had real life application last summer when we travelled as a family to Cape Town, in my birth country of South Africa. On arrival in this beautiful and very modern city, we immediately confronted the reality of a critical water shortage. The signage was clear the moment we passed through customs. Visitors and those who live in Cape Town were working collectively to prevent “Day Zero”. This is potential day calculated by the city leadership where the water supply would reach a critical low requiring water rationing. As a result, a massive public health campaign was under way to inform everyone in the city to be good stewards of water use. A significant drought had impacted the city. In the restrooms, water pressure was decreased to minimize waste. There were signs everywhere to encourage the use of hand sanitizer which was readily available. We listened to advertisements which encouraged singing happy birthday or the ABCs several times or one radio song while showering to limit the length of time spent to 2 minutes. At one large hotel we saw a great display which showed the number of liters of water wasted using a full bath compared to a shower, thus encouraging showers more. My oldest child still recalls that the average bath requires 110 liters of water whereas a shower just 25 liters.
This experience underscored the lessons we had been teaching for years at home. Our commitment to stewardship over the natural resources in our home, water, energy use, is all of our responsibility and it really matters. We have taught our kids through the years to be mindful of how precious water is, the importance of recycling, and not littering. They saw this collective action working to stave off day zero in Cape Town.
Now every family will not have the opportunity to apply these principals on an international trip. However your efforts to model and instill these values in your children are still vital. Teaching our children about our collective work to improve the conditions for humans and animals on our planet is not an exercise in futility. Start small, for example talk about how plastic products fill up landfills and do not break down in the ground. You can do STEAM (science technology arts and math) experiments around this concept by burying a plum seed in your backyard and a piece of straw. Have your child mark the area where each item is placed, return back in a week or two and see which remains and what has already begun to degrade. You can discuss this as an example of why recycling is important. We reuse plastic rather than have it fill up landfills.
This Earth Day if your family is already committed to recycling, composting, or other forms of improving our environmental foot print, keep up the great work. If you have not addressed these issues as a family it is never too late to begin. Any small efforts collectively make a huge impact. We saw this collective effort successfully working in Cape Town, South Africa. A famous Native American quote on this topic has always resonated with me, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Bande Virgil, MD is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics practicing in Georgia. She can be followed on Instagram @themommydoc1 on Instagram. She is a contributing author to The Chronicles of a Women in White Coats. She has an upcoming book on parenting in the new millennium “A Teaspoon of Honey”.