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Ten effective habits of parenting: how to make parenting healthy, green, and less guilt-ridden

Listen to The Green Mama interviewed on Women of Green about this topic.

It’s like magic: having a baby. I don’t just mean the obvious: bump one day and baby the next. I mean what happens to the parents, the mom especially. One day she is a woman and the next day she is a mother. That act of becoming a mother represents the largest life change, and the most sudden, that most people will ever experience. One day you are free to stay up late drinking wine, forget your sunhat, and pass judgment at the woman with screaming toddlers, impertinent teenagers, or breast milk stains on their silk blouses.  Then, seemingly overnight, you are part of a secret tribe of women giving each other the thumbs up when passing with sleeping babies in strollers or sharing tips on favorite slings and you oh-so-sympathetically-and-without-ANY-judgment smile at the frazzled mother trying to pry her child’s booger-filled hands out of the bulkfood bins in the aisle of the grocery store.

Despite what Kermit might say: being green is easy, being a parent—that is hard work. To be green, in-other-words to prioritize the health of our children and the planet, starts for many mothers the day they learn they are pregnant. To figure out how to balance that desire to protect our child with the demands of living, that is the tightrope all parents must walk.

Where to start?

It is helpful to remember that most of our day is filled with a bunch of habits. By definition habits are a set of tendencies or practices that are hard to give-up. This is because the more we do something the better programmed our neurological pathways become to make it easier to keep doing that same action without thinking about it. It usually takes 66 days for something to become a habit according to research (

Becoming a parent, however, happens overnight. Once your new baby is in your arms, he or she is rapidly reprogramming you (and your neurological pathways) into a new self: a parent. Everything changes from what you think the moment you wake up, to what and how you prepare your lunch, to how much time you have to sit on the toilet before bed. Compared to this any healthy, green habit seems easy.

Parents are in a period of rapid growth and development. Most new parents are curious and many of them are asking questions of the world they have never asked before. New habits, parenting habits, are being formed and they might as well be the healthiest habits possible.

What we do changes what we think

The power of “being green” is more than just developing a series of green habits. According to research by Dr. Dan Siegel neurobiologist at UCLA and Co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, our behavior can shape our attitude. In other words, the more we act like we love our child, the more we will really love our child. Or the more we recycle the more we care about the Earth. Or, in the green parenting world: the more we perform the acts of a green parent the more we will actually come to care about the health of our child and the health of the planet. Our thoughts create actions, but our actions also create thoughts.

For a green parent this is powerful. Almost overnight we can slip in a few good green habits and know that there is a better than average chance that they will stick.

What are the ten most effective green parenting habits?

(Follow the green links below for a lot more reading on each subject.)

Don’t worry about the wrong things. Mom’s seems biologically designed to worry about the wrong things. Science tells us one thing, but our gut reaction to seeing our child eating dirt is another. There are plenty of things to worry about in today’s world, and it is often the invisible dangers that are the worst. Knowing what the rea dangers are can be a relief IF you let yourself not sweat the other stuff. Eating a little dirt, climbing too high on the jungle gym, and hanging out with germy kids, may actually make your child healthier in the long run.

Get in the organic food habit . There is increasing research linking pesticides in our food and hormones in our animal products to everything from obesity to cancer. Your child can even get more nutrition per bit with organics according to some studies. The research suggests that a parent should prioritize getting organic 1. Meat, dairy, and eggs; 2. Dirty dozen most contaminated fruits and vegetables; 3. Baby food; and 4. Rice.

The easiest way to do this, is to join a CSA (community supported agricultural project a.k.a. a farm box) or become a regular at your local farmer’s market. A family will save approximately $500 a season over conventional produce and you will get the highest quality produce: local, organic, and fresh. Read the essential: Making Cents of Organics and lots more Green Mama articles on food and diet.

Read labels. Particularly when it comes to skincare for baby there is a lot of greenwashing out there. Often the simplest and healthiest products are actually the most affordable. Even better, many old folk remedies (like Olive Oil for moisturizer) abound to make this part easy and fun. When reading labels, look for just a few ingredients that you can pronounce or, best yet, that you would eat. (Some of the best known baby brands are the worst offenders, so beware!)

Try cloth diapering or even baby potty training. A family can save $2000 per child using cloth diapers instead of disposable. A family can save even more with elimination communication (a.k.a. baby potty training): a new, old trend. With a new baby comes a whole new awareness of someone else’s poop and pee—if you are going to have to develop this habit anyway, make it as green as possible. Like must habits, it takes time at the beginning to develop a system that works, but then cloth diapering and even putting the baby on the potty can become an easy habit and even save time in the end. (Cloth diapered babies are often reported to potty train up to a year earlier than babies that wear disposables and babies doing E.C. can potty train as early as 18 months.) Get the basics with The Green Mama’s Cloth Diapering 101 or get the full cloth diapering low-down.

Give up the throw-away habit. Most of our biggest waste streams are from habits: forgetting our cloth bags, buying bottled water, using disposab
le diapers, buying take-out food. There are waste-free alternatives and the money that we can save is a great incentive to green these habits. A bottled water habit can cost a family $1200 a year, the paper towel habit $50, disposable batteries $30. Other habits than can add up: disposable dishes, Ziploc bags, baby wipes, and cleaning products. There are greener alternatives for all these things that will save you money while helping the health of people and the environment.

Research nursery items before you buy. The nursery can be the most toxic room in a home.  This is because of the many chemicals that off-gas from new furniture, carpets, and bedding.  Some items get better with time (furniture), while some get worse (foam mattress). A short-term aid is to open the windows! Getting in the habit of researching items before you buy and prioritizing indoor air quality will keep every room in the home healthier and can save hundreds of dollars in costly mistakes.

Avoid the plastic trap. Everything about having a child forces you up against plastics: plastic bottles, plastic toys, even plastic lining on cans of formula or food. Many plastics have been found to leach BPA, phthalates, or other chemicals with health effects from feminizing effects on baby boys to toxicity concerns.  When avoiding plastics, prioritize the things that go into baby’s mouth or that contact food (e.g. chew toys, food containers, and bottles). There are great alternatives out there for all these things made from glass, stainless steel, and natural fibers like cotton and wool. The next time you go to the store, forego everything in cans and see if you can find fresh, frozen, or dried alternatives. When buying a toy for your baby, see if you can find something in wood, cotton, or 100% recycled plastic instead.

Save energy and water around the house. A few simple habits around the home like always washing clothes in cold or warm water, foregoing the dryer every now and then, turning up the AC and down the heat, using CFLS, getting power strips for your electronics, and low-flow shower heads, dual flush toilets, front load washers, and faucet aerators can save energy and hundreds of dollars a year in energy costs. As a parent you benefit from the money savings, you save valuable resources, and you know you are setting a healthy example.

Ask questions. Don’t see chlorine-free, plastic-free diapers at your local Target? They exist. Ask the manager to stock them. Can’t find organic potatoes at the grocery store? Ask for them. Wonder why Johnson and Johnson is putting toxic fragrance in their baby shampoo? Write to them. What Consumer Reports to look at truly safe skincare options. Let them know. Wonder if the school is recycling? Ask them. When you don’t like the answers, let the people in power know. Having a child can help embolden many women into feeling more comfortable asking questions, even if they are afraid they won’t like the answers.

Create community that makes green parenting seem fun. Like any new habit, parenting and being green both seem easier when there is a community to support you. Find parents whose approach inspires you. Use your new habit of asking questions as a way of making new friends: How do you like your cloth diapers? Why are you using that glass baby bottle? The internet is another way of finding ways to connect: you can find virtual support and local friends both.

And, remember, the more you act like you are having fun, the more you will have fun. 

Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama.

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