Mothering a Young Environmentalist Without Going Off the Rails
For parents of young nature lovers.
Helpful tools to support their hearts and minds when you communicate to your children what’s happening in the environment around them.
Parenting is an art and a science.
Now more than ever we are called upon to guide our children in an ever-evolving and confusing world. Given all of the complexities of our time, of their childhood context, how do we keep our family from going off the rails?
What does that even mean??
My first thought is that it means “to become a raving lunatic”! But it’s more subtle and incremental than all of the sudden feeling completely dysregulated and lost (as we do every Monday morning). Often it’s the small choices that we make that shift us off the hopes and dreams path of our ideals and catapult us into the ditch. Or worse we find ourselves barreling down another rail line headed in a different direction, disconnected from the path we had intended to go down.
What is the meaning of “Off the rails?”
The Cambridge Oxford Dictionary states, to go off the rails is “to start behaving in a way that is not generally acceptable, especially dishonestly or illegally.”
Honesty is an ethic that we can all get behind, yet it would seem that we are all suffering from a pervasive case of “integrity creep.” Gradually and almost imperceptibly we are withholding our truth and THE Truth. We strive to keep the peace, to get things done, to juggle the competing priorities, and to stitch together the life of our dreams. Our reality check as parents comes when we realize that they, those gorgeous human sculptures we created, are constantly learning from us, in every moment, both explicit and implicit lessons that will shape their brains and the stories of our life together.
My Mindful Parenting Lesson
My son Bjorn is now ten years old and wields a piercing honesty that has shocked me on more than one occasion.
One morning when he was a small child, approximately four years old, I was rushing about getting ready for work and hustling him to get ready for preschool and to get out the door. He was doing the cute little boy running away from clothes thing. And I yelled at him to come to me, “right now!” and his face was mad/sad and so was mine. He often mirrored me perfectly. And then he said something that I will never forget. “Mama, your spirit is becoming my spirit and my spirit is becoming your spirit.” This kid called me out with such ease and grace.
I had fully crept off the rails of mindful parenting. I was barreling toward power struggle ditch land. His authentic communication brought us to a full stop. He unknowingly shared one of the most powerful truths that we humans have to anchor us to a path of intentional parenting. We are connected; we affect each other.
It was NOT all easy breezy …
I would like to say that I immediately shifted back onto the path and it was easy breezy … and no one was late for work that day. But it went something more like this: I began to cry. And then he began to cry. I spoke to him in language far beyond his years. I laid down a bit of a guilt trip about how he can “make me nuts” when he doesn’t cooperate with getting ready in the morning. He got quiet and grabbed my face in his hands and said: “I’m sorry I made you mad mama.” “I’m not mad buddy; I’m overwhelmed, I don’t want to be late.” But then we apologized to each other. “I’m sorry that I overwhelmed you, mama.” “I am sorry that I yelled at you buddy.”
What are your rails?
One way to think of it is the values or boundaries that you want to operate within or the frame around the vision of your bond.
This story illustrates two essential ethics of parenting a child in our current environmental reality.
The First Essential Ethic: Notice
The first is interconnected awareness, embedded in nature. This is to notice the many ways that we impact each other and our world.
Lucky for us, there are innumerable ways to build this mental muscle for ourselves and our children. This is how we begin to see and honor the interconnectedness of humans and nature.
Notice and name all animals that we see on our path; whether we are walking, driving or biking.Notice and name all animal behaviors that we seeNotice and name how the animals inspire us; to fly, to climb trees, to dig.Notice and name any relationships that we see; the vultures are flying in a circle above that dead deer on the side of the road. Someone must have hit it with their car. I hope they are safe.Notice and name the neighbors and people that we see on our path.Notice and name the behaviors that we see; When that man ran by us he looked happy and was smiling. He waved at me. I smiled back at him.Notice and name the relationships that we see in our families, spiritual communities, and neighborhoods.Notice and name the good, the bad, and the ugly and how these things impact us and the world we live in.Notice and name the cause and effect of our actionsNotice and name the small steps to make things right, solve problems and take responsibility for our actions.
The Second Essential Ethic: Honesty
The second ethic, honesty, requires three key elements for it to be fully present: a willingness to feel it, to give it, and to receive it with grace. Grace can be understood here as the absence of toxic stress, or the stress that triggers us to fight, flight or freeze.
We are surrounded by a variety of distractions that keep us from really being with our truth and feeling it resonating within ourselves.
Children are gifted with deep connections to their truth as they are the center of their world. Their natural curiosity is also at play and can foster a deepening ability to communicate their truth through the simple conversations that flow from exploring the natural world. In this way, our children become our teachers.
When we can slow down and be in the moment, aware of the intricacies of our experience, we are present.When we are present, we are standing on the threshold of truth.When we notice and name the connections, as mentioned above, we are cultivating the wisdom that lies within.
Our children seem to speak this truth much more fearlessly than we do. Trust them to take the lead whenever possible.
Hearing the Truth
Older children and adults can become fragmented in our connections to self and others. We struggle to know and speak our truth without filtering it through what we believe is acceptable and appropriate. But often we are much more comfortable with “speaking our truth” than with hearing the truth of another. Honesty doesn’t require the recipient to comprehend our truth completely, but rather to hear it. To hold it in consideration, and to integrate it, as best they can, into the relationship.
For example, my son is a very “sensitive” kid. He engages his world very deeply and has what some call “over-excitabilities,” or atypically intense experiences. Often, these experiences illuminate the sensory processing that is occurring just beneath the surface of our interactions.
The truth is that my son gets overwhelmed by too much sound, too much talking, and too many things to do.
As a parent, I had to learn that giving him more than a couple of directions at once, stressed him out. It triggered his nervous system to freeze. No matter what I thought he should be able to do, because he is smart or whatever, ignoring his truth to prioritize my own always ends badly. Yet when I integrate his truth into how I guide him in his chores, homework or bedtime routine, we both experience more ease and grace.
Understanding his sensory preferences and needs helped me understand my own as well.
When I learned more about how and why his behavior was happening from the inside out, I was able to help him develop his capacity to navigate our loud and overstimulating world.
The benefits of this practice are not just child-focused coddling. When we respect someone and their truth, they naturally begin to pay it forward. After coming to understand my son’s audio sensitivities, I realized that I too get stressed out by too much sound (beeps and toy guns and loud voices). Bjorn and I have been able to notice and name our experiences and how they relate to our behavior and reactions. “My mom is sensitive to loud sounds, so we need to keep our voices low while we are in the car because she needs to focus on the road.” “We need to go outside and play with these because my mom is sensitive to loud clicking.” “Thank you, buddy.”
Daily Life Practice
All in all, we stay sane and centered on an intentional path, when we feel connected to that path.
Children (in fact, all humans!) feel safe and are less likely to be overwhelmed by stress when they feel connected.
Our journey has planted many seeds that will continue to serve my growing child and family well. Our love of nature and concern for the planet have come from many different observations that we have made along the way. Our approach is rooted in the steps listed above, whether we are talking about trash or a current event:
Notice and name the observable connections that show up in our worldPractice being present within our experiences and feelingsSpeak honestly about what is happening and our understanding of itPractice consideration of others (this includes Mother Earth and all creatures); do whatever we can to help othersIntegrate new understanding the best we can; get creative and look for ways to create more grace and ease in our world.
Where do we begin to use these suggestions?
Morning and Bedtime rituals/ connections: I notice when I have a cup of warm tea before bed, I sleep better.
Driving to school in the morning: I notice that whenever we have wet weather, traffic is moving slow and we are running late. Next time it rains we should leave early. Hmmm … there’s an EnviroTip on Noticing Nature– maybe we can check it out!
Meal prep: This avocado is from Mexico! I wonder if the person that picked it speaks Spanish. I wonder if we could plant this seed and grow our own avocado tree!?Gardening: I love the idea of composting kitchen scraps, but I hate the smell of the compost pile. I think we are doing something wrong! Maybe we should check out The Resilient Activist site to find an Envirotip on effective composting!
Hugs: I have had a hard day. Would you please give me a hug? Your hugs are so powerful, I can literally feel your love wrap around me.
There is so much more to say about this topic, but for now, this is the foundation on which we stand.
We are collecting life lessons with daily practice; on and off the rails.
More to come!
EnviroTip for Parenting Young Environmentalists
It’s amazing what you’ll discover when you and your child actively practice noticing your connection with animals, plants, humans, water, and even technology.
Share your noticing in the comments below – we’d love to hear what works for you and your family!