A 'climate hawk' wonders how to educate his toddler

An environmentalist watches his son play with a garden hose and cringes about water conservation.

Tim Dorsey/AP
Child with garden hose, Salina, Kansas.

Being a "climate hawk" tends to keep me from being the life of the party. Lately, however, I have discovered that my ardent environmentalism has begun to have a chilling effect on my 3-year-old son's play dates.

Take, for instance, a game he invented called Lights On, Lights Off. You can guess how that one works. Or take Simon's devilish talent for propping open the refrigerator door without my knowing it. In such moments, I am liable to point out the window to the white, billowing stack of the coal plant two miles away. "That's where our power comes from," I preach. "We have to breathe that smoke." I resist the urge to bring up related topics such as ozone-action days. I will save that until he's older, say, 5.

Like most toddlers, my son loves to play with water. Whenever he has a friend over, I invariably find them at the bathroom sink, chubby hands twirling the tap handles, happily filling and emptying cups as the faucet gushes full-bore.

Where some dads might offer a bucket or squirt gun, I prefer to contribute a brief sermon on the moral imperative of water conservation. I usually begin with an articulate phrase like, "Stop! Simon, what are you doing?" I follow that with a helpful explanation. "Our water comes out of the lake, right? So does the water of our neighbors. What would happen if everyone filled and emptied sinks over and over?" I am reaching for a point about water scarcity, but Simon and his buddy stare back, dazzled by the possibility that everyone in Chicago may be flooding their bathrooms, too. Not exactly what I had intended.

I am no anthropologist, but I would wager that children in drought-ridden Africa or the Middle East learn early on not to waste water. Moreover, I know that my grandparents – galvanized by the Great Depression – learned not to waste anything, be it water or food, fuel or clothing. Between their generation and mine, the script for those important lessons has been lost and I find myself reinventing them in my own hysterical fashion, à la, "Simon, if we can walk to the store instead of driving, it will help save a glacier and the polar bears that live on them. You've never seen a polar bear or a glacier, but trust me, they're great."

I live a few blocks from Lake Michigan, and on warm days Simon and I go make sandcastles at the edge of one of the world's great fresh-water aquifers. The lake floats blue and calm, showing no sign of the immense demands on it. Every time Simon turns the faucet, water pours forth; every time he opens the refrigerator, cold air wafts out. For the moment, we seem rich in resources.

This is the abiding irony of parenting in an era of shrinking icecaps: How do I let Simon be a kid when the planet can hardly afford the carefree, even profligate childhood I enjoyed? After all, at his age I ran the hose for hours, flooding the grass and floating the ants out of their hills.

When my mom was a child, her mother told her, "Finish your dinner; there are starving kids in China." When I was a child, my mom said, "Clean your plate; there's famine in Ethiopia." Now I tell Simon, "Eat your crust, or else the ocean will rise and flood the Maldives." It doesn't make as much sense as the earlier ultimatums, but neither do many things as the Earth warms. Disappearing icecaps? Mass extinctions? How do I explain those – without scaring him to death? I'm scared of them myself.

Like many parents, I want Simon to have a better life than I had. In this case, "better" doesn't mean wealthier or healthier or less arduous. "Better" means thriftier, more responsible in its use of precious resources. I hope he'll have a smaller house than mine, not a bigger one. As a parent, my great fear is there soon won't be enough of the Earth left for Simon to live out his threescore years and ten. The sentence I most fear him uttering isn't, "Dad, I'm in jail." Rather it's, "Thanks for messing up the Earth, Dad."

I have to be careful, too, not to push him too hard. If I preach too much, he will no doubt rebel once he becomes a teen. And by "rebel," I mean that he will drive out to a secluded park with his friends, drink beer – and then throw away the cans!

Simon, didn't Dad teach you to recycle?

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