Friday, November 22, 2013

9.5 Things to do to be a More 'Green' Parent

Being a parent is tough. Being environmentally conscious is tough too. Being an environmentally conscious parent... well, that's just 'tough squared'. 

The modern, First World child is awash in opportunities that most of the kids on this planet just don't have: opportunities to travel, get a college education, engage in a huge variety of extracurricular sports and activities, a lifetime of internet access (and all the benefits and challenges therein), and so much more. 

They also are awash in massive amounts of STUFF. It's too easy to want to give these kids everything and then suddenly your kid is six and has already accumulated six years of STUFF in their rooms and you, as a parent, are suddenly spending far too much time in what I call 'stuff management', which is, in itself, purely a 'first world problems' type of issue. 

Lillian asks for more CRAP at King's Island.
Just say 'no' to more STUFF!
Stuff Management is just that: constantly getting tied up, over and over again, just managing STUFF. It's repetitively picking up, fixing, and putting away all the Barbies and/or GI Joes' accessories, the endless explosion of tiny Legos, all their past artwork masterpieces (works that have to be snuck out of the house to be thrown away), stacking back up all their stuffed animals 'won' at so many fairs (and note that they really aren't 'won', as the fairs just order prizes whose unit price is so low that even the act of paying to play a game means that they've already taken in some profit), and just generally dealing with the massive crapload of STUFF that the modern, First World child accumulates. 

Kids love stickers, and markers, and rubber band bracelets, and tiny, tiny little toys called Squinkies, and Iwanko erasers, and barrettes, and plastic coins, and cheap rings from vending machines, and old birthday cards, and broken crayons, and they certainly love to 'collect 'em all!' They just adore every single little tiny bit of crap that our American society can get them (and I suspect that all this consumption could truly be addictive as their little brains search for the next 'high' of consuming the next new thing). 

And a mea culpa here; I readily admit that I love to buy them stuff. It's a quick fix, a cheap and readily accessible opportunity to turn around a kid's bad day, further endear them to you (or at least feel that way), or just generally make a day extra special. Just imagine your child bursting through the front door with you, as s/he screams "Mommy, mommy, look what dad bought me!" and you'll get the picture.

But, as an environmentally-conscious dude, all this STUFF drives me nuts. Hell, my own amount of personal STUFF drives me nuts, and the girls have six times as much of it as I do (at least when considered in amount of stuff per pound of person...). 

So, I offer up here a few suggestions on how parents can be a little more green:

1. Choose experiential gifts over more plastic crap. This year our girls' gift list (mind you the one written by us and not the one written by them) includes a night at Great Wolf Lodge, renewing annual passes to places like an indoor water park or the zoo, special day trips like ice-skating and hot chocolate downtown, a trip to the rock climbing gym, tickets to a ballet or kid's play - complete with fancy dresses and dinner at their favorite restaurant. And don't forget to get the grandparents and aunts/uncles on board with experiential gifts too. 

A special birthday party sleep over
- with chocolate chip pancakes the next day. 

1.5 And don't forget to GIVE experiential gifts too at your kids' friends birthday parties. Providing a special day for your child and his/her BFF doubles the joy, since they get excited when they first get the gift and again when you actually do it. Ideas here include a 'high tea' with fancy dresses, go-karts, a picnic with special food at a park near their favorite playground, a day together at a children's museum with a trip to the ice cream shop afterwards, tubing or sledding with hot chocolate, etc. 

2. Buy permanent straws. These things are absolutely genius and you can order them online, either as tough plastic, glass, or stainless steel. It will save innumerable cheap, disposable straws from ending up in landfills (and don't forget to also buy the straw cleaning brush). 

3. Travel with water bottles for the kids - and I don't just mean on long trips, but have them in the car with you all the time. You can always fill them up as you go about doing errands, so they will save you from buying any more plastic disposable bottles. Further, when you go into a restaurant, it might (hopefully) allow the restaurant to NOT have to serve your kids their drinks in yet another disposable, single-use plastic or styrofoam cup, as you just ask them to fill the bottles instead.

4. Travel with crayons too. While many restaurants now are so nice as to offer up kids a brand new little box of crayons (which is very thoughtful), we have accumulated and/or thrown out maybe a hundred of these things. They're a little thing, but they sure do add up. So, carry your own little pencil box full of colored pencils or crayons with you. (Further, why not have a little kit that also includes some travel games or other non-electronic diversions?) 

5. And don't buy markers. Kids LOVE the vibrant colors that markers produce, not to mention the smooth flow of them over paper - and sometimes the smell of them. But they're a huge waste. Often kids don't even use them up, but just forget to put the caps back on and they dry out (which makes me wonder... what exactly is outgassing out of these things to dry them out and where is that going within the air in our house?). Stick with crayons and colored pencils. (And when you do end up with a pile of old markers, sometimes local waste disposal agencies will take them on the same days they accept old electronics, batteries, etc.)

6. Buy secondhand kids' clothes. Kids, especially tiny ones, don't care of their onesie or their Spiderman t-shirt came from a second hand store and, luckily, there has been a boom in such stores, especially for babies and toddlers. They are fantastic, often filled with brand new items (we'd seen things like a brand new coat, with a tag still on it, from places like Baby Gap) at ridiculous prices. After all, why buy all sorts of new clothes for a kid that's only going to wear it for a few times during the six-month period while it actually fits them?

Sylvia, reusing a box, egg cartons, and shipping tubes
to make a castle.

7. Reuse one-sided office paper, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, large containers, empty boxes and other recyclables for art projects. We've built boats out of old take-out salad containers, a castle and a space ship out of old boxes, caterpillars out of egg cartons (a classic), and more. I will even break down old crafts and reuse things like beads and pipe cleaners to give them additional life.  

8. And when you are buying toys, consider the content of the toys (I LOVE the cool, durable, well-designed toys made from milk jugs at Green Toys) and the longevity of them. 

9. Get rechargeable batteries! This is huge. This will save landfills from acquiring more of these toxic little buggers, and also hopefully save you some cash as well. And make sure to buy toys that actually use these sizes of batteries. There are so many little toys out there that take annoying, hard-to-find, hard-to-install little bastard batteries with names like 'CR2406-7'. Stick with toys that take batteries that are sizes AAA-D and get a recharge station that will recharge all of them. 

So, these are my thoughts on how parents might take another step toward hopefully being a little more environmentally conscious - and maybe saving yourself some time and money in the process. After all, wouldn't you rather be taking your kid out to race go-karts or ice skate than put away, rebuild, pick up, fix, install more batteries in, or step on yet another plastic, probably made in (and shipped from) China Super Squinkie Princess/Pirate Octo-Launcher Bubble Beads Playset? I know I would. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


There are times when your kids do something, maybe even something that seems rather inconsequential, that it just makes your heart melt. 

There they are, just doing their thing, when suddenly they do something, say something, or just achieve something, and you feel your heart liquify, and run out the bottom of your shoes while you fight back a couple of tears of pure, proud joy.

Young Sylvia busts a rhyme. 
It's easy for me to remember the first time this happened. Thanks to a deployment to Iraq with my Army National Guard unit, one that coincided 'perfectly' with our first child's birth (Lillian was born the very same night as when I flew from Kuwait into Iraq to start my yearlong deployment there). Because I was half a planet away in a war zone, I missed all the first moments most parents get to have with their child; her first coo's, first roll over, sitting up, all that stuff. Devoid of all this, I came home for 15-days of leave when Lillian was then five months old.

Now, I wasn't a baby person and I had no experience with little ones, at all. And my first day back home, still wearing my 'Desert Combat Uniform', I didn't even want to hold Lillian, I was so afraid of her. I left the parenting to my wife Sally. But very early the next morning, my body clock severely out of whack due to the flights back to the US, I was up and about, right around 2AM. I just walked around the house, both amazed to actually be home, and afraid to do anything like turn on the tv, in case it might wake Lillian. But soon after, I heard her stir in her crib. 

I froze. 'Oh crap,' I thought, 'I'm going to have to take care of her. What do I do?!?!?'
Lillian asleep, during my 15-day leave from Iraq in 2005.
I waited for the tears and crying that would force me to go into her room and actually deal with her. But I heard only a rustling sort of sound. Finally, perhaps more scared than I had even been patrolling the streets of Iraq, I went into her room. She must have been dreaming. She fidgeted, her arms and legs shooting out randomly, and I just stared at her for a while. Then she suddenly settled down, and let out a tiny little yawn, her legs and arms stretching out, little fists clenching up. And then she settled back into a deep, angelic sleep.

Right at that moment, that yawn; my first heartmelt. Put a fork in me, I was DONE.
After that, I was absolutely crazy about her and quickly picked up from Sally all that I could to learn how to care for her, play with her, and just help her grow and learn and help her start to figure out this world of ours out a bit.
Other heartmelt moments:
  • My deployment finally over, Sally handed Lillian to me on the Air National Guard's runway and she gave me 'The Heisman', pushing me away because she didn't know who I was. Three days later, I walked into the house, said hi to Sally as she did the dishes, and Lillian came running up to wrap herself around my thigh - and wouldn't let go. My first hug from her, at age 11 months. Heartmelt.
  • Lying down on the floor to watch football game, 18-month old Lillian sidled up to me and just lay her head in the nook of my arm and watched football with me. Heartmelt.
  • Dropping her off at daycare one day, Sally and I were informed that she was now advanced enough to move over to the other side of the facility, the 'big kid' room of 3-4 year olds. We gathered up her stuff, and started to walk her over to the other room. I, as a joke, started to hum the graduation processional song, when I was suddenly overcome by just how big this achievement was (something that before kids I would have thought nothing of if I'd been told by a parent friend about it). I thought of all her graduations to come and frankly I almost lost it.
None of this leaves out baby #2 of course, quite the contrary. When Sylvia came along, it was my opportunity to finally experience all those baby firsts I'd missed with Lillian. Sylvia's own, abbreviated, list of hearmelts:
Jubilant Lillian after roller girl camp.
  • Sylvia was a momma's girl, to start. She wanted Sally and only Sally and would have nothing to do with me. Fed up with constantly, incessantly having to carry her around one night, Sally forced her into my arms, saying something like, "That's it! You take her!!!" I was, again, terrified of a baby. I looked her in the eye and started to bounce her on my knee. She started to make a sound, something guttural  I thought for a moment she was choking. But she kept doing it, getting louder the faster as I went. It was, I realized, her first laugh. Heartmelt. (Meanwhile, a very grumpy, tired, stressed out Sally had some choice words that I'd been able to have this positive moment with her, when Sally had to always do all the hard work of taking care of Sylvia... not so 'heartmelt' for Sally then...)
  • Sylvia walked into our sunroom, while we were having friends over for drinks, and told her first joke; "Where my Dora [figure]? Where my Dora? You seen my Dora? Is it... in my butt!?!?!" The room of adults cracked up, Sylvia's big eyes bouncing around the room at each person's laughter, and she laughing loudest of them all. Heartmelt (a qualification here - this is probably a 'Daddy Heartmelt' as I don't think Sally was as impressed as I was...)
Sylvia's first drum lesson.
The heartmelts still come now, but they're for bigger, more complex achievements  Lillian, now eight, has gotten into roller derby (yes, they have a junior team here that starts at age eight). She's not a strong skater yet, and I was trying to tell her how to do crossovers as she went into the corners. She ignored me, in her eight-going-on-fifteen way, or so I thought. But she actually listed, and started watching the other, big, girls, and suddenly, one day, she just started doing crossovers. Double heartmelt for that one, because: she was a formerly all 'girlie' girl that took up roller derby in the first place, and then started to take a step toward trying to master the sport.

Sylvia started taking drum lessons recently. She sat down behind the practice drum kit with her little pink sticks and that was heartmelt #1, just seeing her sit down behind the kit, ready to drum. Her teacher asked her why she wanted to take drum lessons and she shyly whispered, "Because it's my dweam." Two heartmelts in, like, four minutes.

There are of course, many more heartmelts to come. And they're only going to get bigger: graduations, first apartments, first jobs, probably marriages, hopefully births, and who knows how many more. And of course, if I'm so lucky, with the births of any grandkids, the heartmelts will start all over again...