Making Parents Proud and Sometimes Crazy
By LISA W. FODERARO
Sometimes, Jennifer Ross feels she cannot make a move at home
without inviting the
scorn of her daughters, 10-year-old Grace and 7-year-old Eliza. The
Acura MDX she drives? A flagrant polluter. The bath at night to help
her relax? A wasteful indulgence. The reusable shopping bags she
forgot, again? Tsk, tsk.
“I have very, very environmentally conscious children — more so than
me, I’m embarrassed to say,” said Ms. Ross, a social worker in Dobbs
Ferry, N.Y. “They’re on my case about getting a hybrid car. They want
me to replace all the light bulbs in the house with energy-saving
Ms. Ross’s children are part of what experts say is a growing army of
“eco-kids” — steeped in environmentalism at school, in houses of
worship, through scouting and even via popular culture — who try to
hold their parents accountable at home. Amid their pride in their
children’s zeal for all things green, the grown-ups sometimes end up
feeling like scofflaws under the watchful eye of the pint-size
eco-police, whose demands grow ever greater, and more expensive.
They pore over garbage bins in search of errant recyclables. They lobby
for solar panels. And, in a generational about-face, they turn off the
lights after their parents leave empty rooms.
“Kids have really turned into the little conscience sitting in the back
seat,” said Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources
Defense Council, a leading environmental group that recently worked
with Nickelodeon on a series of public service announcements and other
programming called “Big Green Help.”
“One of the fascinating things about children is that they don’t
separate what you are doing from what you should be doing,” Ms. Bovey
said. “Here’s this information about how we can help the environment,
and kids are not able to rationalize it away the way that adults do.”
In Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Jan Schmidt, a stay-at-home mother, and Mark
Goetz, a professor of furniture design, have watched, amazed, as their
4-year-old son chastises them for letting the water run while they
brush their teeth. “He’ll come over and turn it off and say, ‘Every day
is Earth Day,’ ” Ms. Schmidt said. “He learned it at school.”
Their older child, 12-year-old Elly, extols the clothesline in her
bedroom the way other girls her age might show off a new beanbag chair.
An aspiring marine biologist, Elly raised $250 last year to protect
coral reefs by selling handmade earrings at school. And she was a big
factor in the family’s decision to hang on to their current car instead
of buying a bigger one.
“With Elly, there’s sort of an unspoken thing about not buying an S.U.V.,”
Ms. Schmidt said.
Elly elaborated: “I wouldn’t be happy if they bought an S.U.V. because
they’re not fuel efficient, and they pollute more than other cars.”
They learn this stuff everywhere. In the summer, the Pixar film
“Wall-E” served up an ecological parable of a planet so punished that
it had to be abandoned. The Girl Scouts recently added patches
including “Environmental Health,” “Get With the Land,” “Earth Pact” and
“Water Drop.” Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education
and media company, has teamed up with the American Museum of Natural
History to create Web sites and magazines about climate change and
other environmental issues.
A Scholastic message board where children share eco-friendly tips,
called Save the Planet, has had three million page views in the past
And school districts across the country are adding lessons on the
environment to their curriculums in many subject areas, as well as
enforcing idle-free zones in school driveways, switching to plant-based
cleaners, doing away with pesticides and, in some places, installing
In the Byram Hills School District in Armonk, N.Y., middle-school
teachers plan to roll out new material related to the environment
starting in January.
“We’re trying to integrate it into anything where it naturally fits,”
said Jackie Taylor, the district’s superintendent. “It might be in a
math lesson. How much water are you really using? How can you tell?
Teachers look for avenues in almost everything they teach.”
Katie Ginsberg, co-founder and executive director of the Children’s
Environmental Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit group in Chappaqua,
N.Y., has trained hundreds of teachers from Massachusetts to New Jersey
in issues of sustainability and environmental science. More than 1,500
students attended the group’s annual expo, Students for a Sustainable
Future, at Pace University this spring.
“In 2002, the environmental education children were getting was very
isolated,” Ms. Ginsberg said. “It was emphasized mainly on Earth Day
and an occasional field trip to a nature center. We started looking for
different paradigms of environmental education around the world.”
But the green initiatives in schools have not been universally
embraced. Some critics say such lessons are a distraction as districts
struggle to meet minimum standards on math and reading tests. Others
say turning children into stewards of the environment is an
inappropriate use of taxpayer money.
And even parents who are impressed by their children’s commitment to
remake the world can also sometimes feel, well, badgered. Paul Wyckoff,
a writer in Hunterdon County, N.J., said his 15-year-old son, Will,
yells at him for “leaving the car idling for a few seconds in the
driveway.” He has even taken to turning off nightlights to save energy.
“My philosophy is get the big stuff,” Mr. Wyckoff said. “I think he
takes it too far. But I’m proud of him. I think he’ll moderate with
Given that children often lack a sense of social boundaries, things can
get sticky when their haranguing extends beyond the home. Liz
DiVittorio, of Raleigh, N.C., a mother of three, recalled walking with
her 10-year-old son, Michael, this summer after a rainstorm and seeing
a neighbor running his sprinkler.
“My son looked at him and said, ‘Why are you watering your lawn? It
just rained,’ ” said Ms. DiVittorio, who works for a software company.
“I sat there and cringed.”
For middle schoolers, money is fairly abstract — and therefore no
object. Sarah Hodder and Dr. Peter Allen of Chappaqua have three boys,
the oldest of whom, Charles, 10, is itching to go solar.
“Any time we pass a house with solar panels, he says, ‘Why can’t we do
that?’ ” said Ms. Hodder, co-chairwoman of the Roaring Brook Elementary
School Environmental Committee. “I always say, ‘Talk to Daddy.’ A lot
of these steps are cost-prohibitive, although ultimately in the long
run they’re good for the environment and the wallet.”
Ms. Hodder said that in the short term, she and her husband are making
more modest changes, with the children’s support, like turning down the
heat, composting, walking to school and “not buying so much stuff.” But
as enthusiastic as Ms. Hodder is about protecting the environment, the
children seize on her lapses, as when Peapod delivers the groceries in
“They’ll say, ‘Mom, I thought we weren’t supposed to use plastic bags,’ ”
Douglas and Alison Distefano, of Rumson, N.J., who have two children,
dubbed their fifth grader, Olivia, “the recycling militant general.”
“For us, Earth Day is a reason to go outside,” said Mr. Distefano, an
executive with Soltage, a solar energy company. “But for them it’s a
Ann Tedesco, a psychologist in Armonk, said her daughter Celeste, 9,
“is always policing the regular garbage bins to make sure we’re not
throwing paper away in there,” adding: “She particularly enjoys
catching her older sister.”
Dr. Tedesco’s husband, Rick Alimonti, a lawyer, recalled how their son,
Lucas, 7, kept reminding him to turn off the engine while waiting
“I was only idling for a minute, and I explained that it uses more gas
and pollutes the atmosphere more to turn the engine off and back on
again,” he said. “I looked it up afterward to make sure I wasn’t
He was in the clear: Several blogs asserted that idling for a minute or
less is preferable to shutting off and restarting the engine.