It’s important that we raise children to become adults who make sustainable choices therefore we need to get them into these healthy habits early. We may have started as a small group of people, but our impact ripples out and starts a collective SHIFT – a tidal wave of change.
One way to do this is to role-model the behaviours we wish to see in our children. The second is to pass on our values and principles to them.
Now, there are two ways to do the latter.
One is to tell them about it and explain why we do things. That’s great, and also very important, but we also know that children watch what we do even more than they listen to what we tell them. So if we truly want them to learn to stand by their values we need to stand strong in our own. We can’t be all wishy-washy about the things that we claim mean the most to us.
So this is where we have to be clear on our boundaries and what we will and will not accept. This goes not just for our families, but in our friendships, also for which companies we shop from – after all we are voting with our money every day. By sourcing our products from a company we are effectively saying we support their values too.
Let me explain how we can role model healthy boundaries for our children about all things, and how this impacts on their future behaviours from a sustainable living perspective.
Why is it so important to be firm and consistent with the boundaries we set with our kids? Because otherwise it’s a slippery slope leading to a place we never intended to go.
Let’s look at a scenario from everyday life.
You decide to go grocery shopping, and your 4 year old child comes with you to the supermarket.
Your wonderful, yet energetic child doesn’t want to stay in the shopping trolley and would much rather go explore the shop. You don’t want them running off and getting lost in the large store as you work your way down your long shopping list. You try to convince them to stay in the trolley but they start to whine, making it hard for you to concentrate on the task at hand. Your child spots a lollipop on display and starts pleading for it. You silently curse whoever placed that display of sweets at children’s eye-level, and carry on shopping. By now the semi-quiet pleading from your child has become a steady roar, and they are hanging out of the side of the shopping cart. You ask them to sit properly and to stop begging for lollipops. They stop for about 20 seconds and then start up again as they see more sweets nearby. They lean further out of the trolley to reach for them, with the trolley threatening to topple over. You pull them back into the trolley and look down to see that other random snacks have started to appear in there as well – anything that’s reachable for your child as you go past the shelves in the aisles. You spot the colourful packaging of snacks and processed foods. Your child starts to throw the healthy stuff out onto the floor to make room for more snack foods in the trolley. You get angry. Eventually you give in. FINE! Have the stupid lollipop, just let me get the shopping done!
Your child is happy and quiet with the lollipop in their mouth, you get your shopping done, pay, and you get home with no further drama.
So why is this bad?
In some ways it’s not. One lollipop isn’t the end of the world.
It made them happy, it helped you finish shopping. Win-win.
Until…next time you go shopping.
Even though you, generally speaking, are the kind of parent who would prefer your child to eat carrot sticks (saving treats for special occasions), somehow you end up caving in to their lollipop demands yet again, because it just makes shopping easier.
Reading this now you might be thinking, well so what?
What’s a little lollipop? It’s not the end of the world.
No, it’s not the end of the world. It is what the lollipop represents that is the issue.
It represents a ‘broken no’.
If you don’t stick to your boundaries then a ’No’ stops being a ‘No’.
A ‘No’ becomes a ‘Maybe’.
Or a ‘if-I-ask-enough-times-maybe-it-will-become-a-yes.’
They may start to expect a lollipop every time they come shopping with you. They may even form an association that lollipops and shopping go hand in hand, like popcorn and movies. Like peanut butter and jelly. Like cheese and crackers….I could go on, but you get the drift.
This goes for all things. Bedtimes, doing homework, eating their broccoli…whatever you don’t stick to when you’ve already said so becomes an empty threat. They learn to not take what you say seriously.
So with boundaries it’s critical to know:
- What you feel strongly about.
It’s like that age old saying ‘pick your battles’. If you don’t care about lollipops then that’s not where you need to put your foot down. Only draw a line in the sand if you intend to keep it. Maybe you feel more strongly about going to bed on time, or remembering to switch out the lights behind them when they leave a room.
- Be consistent.
Whatever you decide, back it up. It may be tough for the first few days because they will test the boundaries to see if they can get your ‘No’ to turn into a ‘Yes’, but once they realise you won’t budge then they will stop asking.
- It’s possible to be kind and loving, but firm at the same time. Setting a boundary doesn’t have to be punitive or harsh. Setting a boundary doesn’t equate to punishment. It just means that you are honouring your agreed upon rules, and your own personal boundaries.
- Above all else, remember that you are role-modelling something healthy for them. This is BIG.
They may get upset or angry at times about it, but when you stick to your boundaries you are giving them an opportunity to deal with anger and disappointment at home, in a safe space, with people who love and support them. You are preparing them for future life by building their resilience. After all, if you were showing them inconsistency at home and teaching them through your actions that a ’No’ at home may be flexible, this would be confusing for them when at ‘No’ at another person’s house was not. And looking to the future, a ‘No’ to a job they applied for and didn’t get, is not flexible. How would it feel if that was the first time they had to deal with a ‘No’?
So how does sustainable living tie into boundaries?
When we learn about boundaries we learn about principles.
When we role-model strong values to our children, they’re more likely to also have strong values about the things that are important to them. If they see us standing by our values and taking actions that align with these values, they too will know how that’s done. This is important, because these children hold the future of our planet in their hands. They are the future adults of this world, making the future decisions. Perhaps as politicians, perhaps as innovators, perhaps as consumers.
The children who have parents who are wishy-washy, and inconsistent in their actions, and change their minds about what they feel is important, won’t even know what it looks like to consistently stand by a set of principles. This planet needs principled people who are willing to stand up and say ‘No’ sometimes. To draw a line in the sand about what is acceptable and what is not.
Whether this is petitioning big companies to start using healthier things in their products/dispose of their waste in safer ways/create less packaging, or whether they choose to only buy things that aren’t harmful to the environment – these are all active ways to stand by their principles.
Secondly, boundaries teach us about respect. Respecting other people’s boundaries, and our own. We learn to honour someone else’s ‘No’ when this is what we have had role-modelled for us at home. This is an amazing thing on so many levels, and in so many situations. This can, in turn, lead to a more ethical way of thinking. It doesn’t just become about seeing what you can get away with – like the lollipop at the supermarket – it gets you to think about what you believe is the right thing to do.
What do you need to do to instill better consumption habits in your children?
Educate: Treat them as grown up individuals, instead of saying an outright no, explain to them why a particular product is bad for the environment. Watch documentaries with them on the environment. Choose books that have a good message.
Set up activities: Whether it’s craft with upcycling, or whether each time we throw something, ask if this can be re-used? Plan beach clean-ups, or take them for a visit to a recycling center. Take them out for picnics in nature, or join a bird watching group!
Get them to come up with ideas: What can we do differently this month? Should we plant a tree? Or should we make our own compost pit? And if it’s a busy week, let’s just stick with something like a ‘no plastic week’ or a ‘Meatless Monday’.
The idea is to not intimidate them or bore them, but to get them to start the thinking process of feeling empathy for the environment, and instilling action oriented behaviours.
This is one our world really needs right now, because so many corporations create things, oftentimes the cheaper option because they think consumers would prefer cheap over quality or sustainable. Just because we can make a cheaper option doesn’t mean we should if it’s costing the earth in some way.
So the best way to instil these important values in our children is to role-model them by our behaviours, and with boundary setting.
Camilla Gammelgaard-Baker is Parenting Coach and Psychodynamic Counsellor working with clients all over the world. With a background in psychology and with 20+ years experience of working with families, she is known for her work with Mothers to overcome self-doubt and burn-out. She currently lives a very eco-friendly life in Denmark with her husband, son, cat and dog.