“1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, We believe its not too late, Together we can change the world” sang my daughters’ year 2 class to their parents at the end of the year. We sat there with a feeling of warm hopefulness that the next generation, steeped as they are in recycling campaigns and eco-councils at school, will bring a fresh energy to the challenges we face.
An hour later: “I’m hungry. I won’t eat what’s left in my lunch box. It’s old.”. “I hope I get lots of new toys for my birthday”. “Everyone is collecting those foam squishies”.
You can inspire children to take part in one-off projects, to raise funds for a cause, or even write and campaign. However, the reality is that the daily individual choices that drive how we consume our world fly in the face of how most children are wired. They want more, not less, something new, not reused, something bright and sparkly (so most often plastic), and something that appeals to them now, not something they will still have a use for in years to come. And frankly, it’s rare that the sustainable choice is the way of fun.
“Topsy and Tim and their parents were preparing for their birthday party.
“Can we have a swimming party, Mum?” says Topsy?
“Ooh yes please” says Tim “with inflatables. Can we have party tea at the swimming pool? With hula hoops and iced gems and party rings and cakes and everything!”
Topsy and Mum glance at each other nervously. “Well” says Mum “last time we went, I noticed there was palm oil in the crisps they sold in the vending machine. Maybe I could buy the things for tea. But that means you can’t have everything. I need to make sure we don’t waste too much and buy less but more sustainable food”.
“More expensive” moans Dad. “You’ve got the hand of buying more sustainable, just not the hang of buying less of it!”
Tim pipes up “What about party bags, Mum. I went to one where they gave everyone those foam water-pistols. Can we give out those?”
“But Tim” protests Topsy “Don’t you remember that assembly we had on plastic? I’m not sure they are recyclable. What about sustainable colouring pencils”.
“You can’t shoot anyone with those” grumbles Tim. “Try me”, mutters Dad, head in hands.
(NB. Any resemblance to known individuals or marital dynamics is entirely coincidental)
Teaching children to make choices based on values rather than wants is hard. They have to care passionately about the values (which they won’t all do) and have a sense that it’s normal to have an internal conflict about what decisions they take.
My former colleague, Alex Evans, published a book called ‘The Myth Gap’ arguing that facts and figures are not sufficient to change behaviours. (https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/1113478/the-myth-gap/) Successful movements for change have stories and narratives that bring people together to be part of the change, and hence, part of the story. I am convinced that this is as true, if not more so, for children.
Its not just about the subject matter. We do need the stories about the animals, the wildlife and the adventures of the heroes and heroines that helped save the species. I haven’t read yet, but would like to the series by Holly Webb sponsored by the WWF. We need the natural world to be infused throughout children’s stories and programmes; I was struck recently reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that C.S. Lewis clearly expected his readers to understand the difference between beeches, oaks and larches; my 7 year old knows only oaks . The conveniently coloured, unseasonal, fantasy plants that abound in children’s animated programmes do everyone a disservice. Let’s at least make the real plants and creatures part of the story.
But for children I think its essentially about the characters. We also need heroes and heroines who dont automatically do the best thing; characters who have to wrestle with themselves, who celebrated a triumph of pursuing a value or helping a cause rather than satisfying an immediate want. From my childhood, I can think of Pinnochio, Anne of Green Gables , the Pevensey children in Narnia and the March sisters from Little Women, for whom it was a normal part of everyday life to have a conflict between their natural inclinations and who they were aspiring to be. Simba and Aragorn are both reluctant leaders who come into their own, albeit at different levels of complexity.
I don’t yet know enough about modern children’s fiction as my children are only just getting into it. My greatest exposure so far is to the Rainbow Magic series, where I am unconvinced that after nearly 100 identical adventures, the indomitable Rainbow Magic duo, Rachel and Kirsty, could remain so utterly unchanged in character. But, given that they did, it’s fortunate that they still always have just the right idea at just the right time.
So I genuinely want to know which are the stories that are going to really inspire the next generation to change the world? I want my children to understand internal conflict and development of character as a normal part of life that will help them with theirs. But I also think that such stories are a critical ally in the fight for the less immediately attractive option that, if we all took; together we could change the world.
Ideas of a zero waste birthday didnt go so well then!