March 10, 2010

Being Eco-Conscious ≠ Irrational Parenting. ~ Kelly Drennan

One mother’s response to Toronto Life’s article, “Totally Freaked Out.”

As an eco-conscious mother of two, and a relatively-well known advocate of sustainable living, I found myself angered and saddened by the article “Totally Freaked Out,” published recently in Toronto Life Magazine. I am personally and professionally offended…and simply cannot keep quiet about it.

Being a parent is the greatest responsibility in life. We have to protect our children and keep them safe and healthy. If they can’t trust us to do this, then who do they have?

Like many of you reading this, I do what I can to live a socially- and environmentally-conscious lifestyle. My efforts became more dedicated, however, after having my two daughters. Naturally, as my awareness grew, I became more conscious of what I put in and on their bodies; what cleaning products I was using on floors and windows, the detergent I used to wash their clothes and so on. I also became concerned for their future, and for the future of our planet. Just thinking about what their world will look like was enough to motivate me to make a greater change in my behavior.

We are thankfully not one of the many families affected by environmental sensitivities or allergies, which is often the entry point for those who adopt a lifestyle of health and sustainability. But for a magazine of this stature to poke fun at or make these issues seem unimportant is baffling.

Access to Research

This article negatively states that “ensuring your child’s well-being now means researching everything yourself.” Well, since we have the ability to research any topic with the click of a mouse, isn’t this more a comment on the advancement of technology, and not so much an issue of parents freaking out?

It’s not a big deal for me to look something up online. I know it can mean weeding through what is clearly not credible information, but the combination of what I read and my gut instinct helps me make informed decisions, particularly as they relate to the health and well-being of my children. This is not a burden in any way.

Alternative Education

As one of the founding parents of Toronto’s new Whole Child Alternative School, I was disturbed at the context within which it was highlighted in this article. The author chose the parent’s dissatisfaction with the host school’s snack program (i.e. yogurt tubes), to drive home her point that “even here, parents are pushing for more”.

At WCAS, we are a group of regular families who just happen to want the same things for our children – to be able to learn in a holistic environment. Sure another common denominator might be that we are an eco-minded group, who happen to care about what our children eat, but is it wrong to prefer broccoli and chic peas over processed sugar and dairy packaged in non-recyclable plastic? And so when we were told that yogurt tubes were part of the snack program, it seemed natural for us to speak up and push for something healthier. I think regardless of what kind of school your child attends, parents would have similar issues with yogurt tubes. Thus, this attitude is not exclusive to an alternative, “hippie inspired” school of eco-extremists.

Extreme Measures & Invisible Threats

Something else that struck a nerve with me in this article is how the author suggests that we are “embracing extreme measures to protect our kids from invisible threats”.

Consider her choice of the word “extreme.” Personally, I don’t find anything extreme about asking a child to forgo birthday gifts…or, more likely, to want them be made from natural materials in socially-responsible conditions…let alone wanting to replace the BPA leaching sippy cups at my child’s daycare with safe, non-toxic ones. I also don’t think it’s extreme to shop local and organic, or to voice concerns about a school snack program that serves yogurt tubes.  Nor do I think that the waste produced from 500 kids eating yogurt tubes is an “invisible” threat. That paints a pretty clear picture for me!

To further illustrate her point, the author accuses the pushers of “pure parenting” of “going to great lengths” to limit exposure to known carcinogens, and that they/we are hyper-vigilant in their/our approach. For my family, and for most of my friends, sustainable and responsible parenting has been a smooth and natural extension of the way we already live our lives. I’m not all anxious and exhausted over it as one would assume reading this article. Most of us “freaked out” parents have made the transition seamlessly, without having to give it much thought. And if we weren’t already living LOHAS before we had kids, thankfully, we are now. As I mentioned earlier, having children has taken my understanding of social and environmental impacts to a new level, but I don’t feel resentment. I am actually grateful. To have knowledge is to be empowered.

Obsessing over Chemicals

The article also makes accusations of parents “obsessing” over pesticide and phthalate exposure; and then later alleges, “Reason does not always prevail”.  I am still trying to understand that latter statement – exposing your children to known cancer-causing substances is more reasonable? Let’s check in with the experts on how unreasonable and obsessive we are being:

-“Why Children May be Especially Sensitive to Pesticides” (click here)

-“How You Are Exposed to Toxic Chemicals” (click here)

-“Cancer Risk Around You: Phthalates” (click here)

-“Chemical Exposures: Prostate Cancer and Early BPA Exposure” (click here)

Taking Over the City

The author believes that us extremists are “determined to convert the city to their cause.” I think one of the most wonderful things about being a mom in Toronto is how easy it is for me to feel connected to other moms, through my community and my own personal network. As parents, we know the value in sharing information, whether it’s the most comfortable way to tie a sling, the best drop-in centers to hang out at, or tips on how to discipline your temper-tantrum throwing preschooler. So doesn’t it make sense then that when parents learn about the effects of exposure to harmful toxins found in common every day children’s products, that we share that information with other parents? Are we suddenly selfish and only care about the health and well-being of our own kids? Or do we also care about our friends, colleagues and neighbors children as well? I’m pretty sure the answer is yes. And so how else can you raise awareness if you don’t have a voice? And once you find that voice, you need to rally together as much support as possible. Why? Because it matters dammit, that’s why.

Keeping up with the Eco-Jones’

The article goes on to say that the “peer pressure to conform to new parenting rules can be intense.” Peer pressure to keep your kids safe and healthy? Peer pressure to be mindful of how your everyday activities and purchases impact the environment? Maybe resistance to change comes from the fear that parents can no longer get away with being lazy. It really is a sad statement on society to think of how addicted so many people are to the culture of convenience. If it takes a few more minutes to do what is right, why bother? Let the next person be the sucker who saves the planet, and in the end you win because you have more time to drive your car and watch TV.

I am confident that my girls are not exposed to anything toxic in our home. They are content to play with their awesome wooden tree house and castle, and their hand made organic wool, lavender stuffed dolls. But when my daughters play with other children whose parents buy them toys made from unsafe plastics or other toxic substances, or who feed their kids processed and over packaged snacks, then it affects me. I don’t exactly sport a police hat and exclude families from playgroups and birthday parties because they have made different choices than me. But if by sharing my knowledge and beliefs, it means that other parents feel pressure to follow suit, then so be it. They will benefit, and most importantly so will their kids.

It’s Easy to be Green!

What the author fails to miss is that making conscious choices about how we shop – what we feed our children, what they wear, play with – is actually pretty easy, with many options now available both online and at most of the places we already shop. The good media are usually keen to help spread awareness to this end, promoting the rising number of businesses who are offering eco friendly and non-toxic alternatives. This article however does the exact opposite. It acts as a deterrent for the families who may already be feeling discouraged to change their shopping behavior. It reinforces any doubts they may have had.  The author has clearly chosen to put her personal beliefs ahead of the safety of children, as it relates to toxic chemicals.

What I would have liked to see, what might have actually made this article more bearable, is an interview with a family who can speak to the fact that living an eco-conscious lifestyle was the worst thing they ever did. Find me a family that believed in it, worked hard at it, but found it was just too time consuming, exhausting and anxiety ridden to be worth their while.

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