Literature on raising environmentally responsible children?

Kids in treeLots of parents want to be environmentally friendly. As I have discovered, having children raises all sorts of dilemmas and parents often struggle with how to be environmentally responsible parents. The interest in the topic was demonstrated when Transition Newcastle held a forum on “Raising Resilient Kids for a Better World” and it was one of our most popular events. Not surprisingly there is a great deal of material on the internet that discusses parenting and the environment. It seems to focus on two main areas:

  1. Green parenting practices (e.g., Little Eco Footprints, Eco Parents Australia)
  2. Connecting children with nature (e.g., Children & Nature Network, Mother Natured)

I’m particularly interested in how parents can encourage their children to be environmentally responsible. The assumption behind many of the blogs and web sites is that if we are environmentally responsible ourselves and connect our children with nature, then our children are more likely to have an environmental conscience themselves. There doesn’t seem to be nearly as much material about other strategies. Of course some bloggers or internet sites do specifically explore how parents can raise environmental awareness in their children. (See for example Raising Environmentally-Conscious Kids, How to raise an eco-conscious teenager, Talking with children about the environment).

As I work in an academic environment, I’m also interested in academic publications exploring these issues. I haven’t had much success. There are probably papers out there, but it can be pretty hard to find them. Key words like sustainability and environment are used in many different contexts, which means that searches using these terms combined with parenting identify lots of irrelevant material (e.g., “How to support safe and supportive family environments”, “Housing and children’s development and wellbeing”, “The impact of a correctional-based parenting program in strengthening parenting skills of incarcerated mothers.”)

I’m planning to do a systematic literature search to see what is available and recently did a practice search of Australian publications using the Informit index databases. These types of databases allow researchers and students to search a wide range of publications (including academic journals, and professional journals) for relevant material. Although Informit is a collection of over 90 databases I knew it wouldn’t produce too many results (because of its focus on Australia) and it would help me to test search terms before I do a full search.

My initial search found the following number of publications between 2005 and 2014:

  • 30,008 publications with the words environ* (the “*” includes any ending e.g., environmental, environment, environments, etc.) and sustain* within 3 words of each other; OR climate change OR ecology
  • 140,824 publications with the words parent* OR mother* OR father* OR child* and rais* within two words of each other OR child* and rearing within two words of each other
  • 436 publications including BOTH the environmental and parenting terms.
  • 194 publications after removing duplicates and ones that were outside the specified date ranges (because quite a few had slipped through).

By looking at the title and, if necessary, the abstract it was possible to exclude most of the 194 publications as not being relevant. Example of titles that were clearly not relevant include “Relationships between parental involvement in schooling, classroom environment, and students’ attitudes and achievement” and “Migrant and ‘Mother Tongues’: Extralinguistic Forces in the Ecology of English in Singapore.”

Once this was completed I was left with 22 articles that were worth looking at more closely. When I looked at the actual article I immediately excluded a further four. For example the abstract of “Sink solutions” suggested it was a possibility:

It’s an inevitable moment in the life of all parents, when the next generation must go seek their fortune (or simply just survive) in the big, bad world. But, just as countless human families are experiencing today, this assumes there is somewhere to go.

Once I looked at the actual article, I excluded it because it was about preserving habitat for birds and other wild life.

Of the final 18 potential articles there were really only three that had a focus on how parents can help their children to be environmentally friendly:

Meehan, S. (2010). Sustainability…. an Educator’s and Mum’s Reflection. Educating Young Children: Learning and Teaching in the Early Childhood Years, 16(2), 23-26.

Payne, P. G. (2005a). Families, Homes and Environmental Education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 81-95.

Payne, P. G. (2005b). Growing up green. Journal of the Home Economics Institute of Australia, 12(3), 2-12.

The paper by Sharon Meehan (2010) was borderline. It was a conversation with an environmental sustainability advisor (and not an academic paper) and focussed more on early childhood services than parenting. I still included it because she made some useful observations such as:

  • FNQ 2014 112The difference between education for sustainability and environmental education
  • The importance of allowing to children to explore their natural environment
  • The need to move beyond tokenism (e.g., do more than start a vegetable garden)
  • The importance of ensuring that sustainability is part of the culture of the service (or family) and that sustainable practices become ingrained in everyday experiences.

Meehan also emphasised the importance of children being able to develop a love of nature by playing outside and she reflected on the differences between her own childhood of playing unsupervised outside with the more controlled, supervised play of children today. (This is a common theme in personal reflections on connecting children with nature.)

Both papers by Phillip Payne focused on findings from research with seven inner city Melbourne families who voted Green and had at least one child aged 8-16. The parents and children were interviewed and completed a survey about environmental practices (as part of broader research) and the way in which the parents “think about, pass down, negotiate and support the environmental actions (and inactions) of their children” (2005a, p. 83). The study found that parents played an important role in fostering and supporting environmental awareness and raising their children’s environmental consciousness.

The strategies parents used to foster “green sensibility” (2005b, p.6) in their children could be characterised as:

Loving, caring and protective, primarily “liberal” and “democratic” in that a wide range of “methods” were employed including modelling, active demonstration, often allowing children the “freedom” to do, provision of choices—sometimes restrained, high levels of communication and use of reason, family discussions, principled problem-solving, and offering of explanations when asked. Persuasion was sometimes used by most parents, as was the sporadic use of manipulation, rewards and punishments for certain behaviours. Coercion was rejected. Direct instruction was rarely used but may have accompanied the explanations parents did offer (2005a, p. 86).

Both of Payne’s papers were published in education journals and so the main conclusions drawn from the research focus on teachers. For example he suggests that home economics teacher might consider:

  • Being committed to environmental and social justice in both theory and practice
  • Fostering a class ethos that students can make a difference through everyday actions
  • Being prepared to “critique, discuss and limit the availability of consumer material goods, technological gadgets, fashions, images and icons”
  • Encouraging resourcefulness in children’s problem solving (2005b, p. 9-10).

Most of the other papers from the literature search that had potential also focussed on schools rather than parenting. Some of them were quite interesting and discussed involving parents in school environmental initiatives but none of them were specifically about parenting. (Many of them looked interesting and it’s easy to get distracted doing these types of searches!)

The amount of material discussing parenting and the environment on the web suggests it is an important topic that captures the interests of many parents, but it doesn’t seem to be a topic that has captured as much attention in the academic world yet. It will be interesting to see what a more detailed search produces.

The lack of material encourages me to continue with my plan to interview parents about how they try to raise their children to be environmental responsible.

Please let me know of any good resources (academic or not) on raising environmentally responsible children and adults.

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Parenting for a better world
  2. Talking with children about the environment
  3. Focusing more on families
  4. When is it OK for kids to walk home alone?
  5. What’s your parenting style?

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
This entry was posted in Environmental sustainability, Families & parenting and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Literature on raising environmentally responsible children?

  1. cynthiajoanmorrison says:

    David Suzuki has many children’s books about the Environment

    Liked by 1 person

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