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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Too Much Too Soon

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Karen Pollens warns against overloading kids with environmental concerns.


CURWOOD: A little bit of environmental awareness can be a good thing for a kid, but according to commentator Karen Pollens, a lot can be too much.

POLLENS: One morning not long ago, my two girls came running up the back steps. Lee was six, Cynthia was four. Their grinning faces were smeared with mud. Both were cradling long shards of glass in their jackets. The glass was from beer bottles, dug up from the creek behind our house. "Look what we did!" they shouted. Hadn't I told them never ever to touch broken glass? "But Mom," Lee said, "It's our job to clean up the trash!"

It suddenly hit me how often our children are told that they must help save the planet. Ecology lessons begin in preschool. Mr. Rogers talks about recycling. A popular book lists "101 Ways Kids Can Save the Earth." In one Sunday episode of Captain Planet, Crusader for Earth, a boy risks his life to save a whale. So why should I be surprised if my two daughters dig up broken glass?

But is it really our kids' responsibility to save the Earth?

Someday our children will inherit the trash heap. But it seems to me that we grown-ups -- parents, educators, and of course those trying to make a fast buck --- are handing over the task of saving the Earth to the next generation a little too soon. Maybe we've put the weight of the world on the shoulders of children, because we've lost confidence in ourselves. We focus our energy on teaching our children to be good environmentalists, in the hope that someday they will make better choices than we have. But the concept of shared social responsibility is an almost impossible one for children, because they often don't understand the limits of their own influence. If someone they love gets sick, a child might think that they're somehow responsible and feel guilty. In the same way, they might really believe they have some control over a huge oil spill.

The other day, on the way to nursery school, Cynthia asked, "Is the Earth going to be all right?" Her words were an echo of my own fears. I swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, I think so." She seemed to buy it. I felt good about it, because she felt good. But I suddenly realized I had just committed myself to less talk and more action.

Parents should encourage their kids to be aware. But perhaps the best way to teach kids about environmental activism is by example. These days, if either one of my environmental superheroes finds glass in the backyard, she runs up the back steps shouting. But now my daughters know, and I know, that it's up to me to clean up the mess. Concern for our kids may motivate parents to do more for the environment, and that's good. Because, for the time being, it's still our job.

CURWOOD: Commentator Karen Pollens is a teacher and a mother of three. She lives in suburban Boston.



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