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The Nature of Childhood Today: What to Know & What to Do

And 3 ways parents can become the experts on the care of their children for today’s world

Let me tell you a story.

I grew up poor. American Midwest, subsidized-housing poor. Dirty needles and gunshots on the playground poor. Blocks of orange plastic stuff that was called cheese and came in boxes to your doorstep kind of poor.

On the other hand, I work really hard to give my kids the best of what a North American lifestyle has to offer: we live in a nice townhouse, they attend private school, we eat organic food, use natural skincare and all the things that you might expect from the kids of The Green Mama.

Yet, despite all of this, my childhood was healthier than my children’s childhood. Kids today are part of a generation where very few of them will have it as good as we did, no matter how badly we had it.manda biking youth for web

Are things really so much worse?

To try and help answer this, I am going to share some numbers. The “Scary Stats.”

  • 74 billion pounds of industrial chemicals imported or manufactured everyday in North America
  • Every 2 ½ seconds a new chemical is synthesized or discovered
  • Fewer than 200 of these have been tested for human health and safety
  • Children born today in North America have over 130 different suspected or known toxins in their bodies at birth.

We also know that childhood diseases are on the rise. In the last twenty years we have seen precipitous increases in diseases such as allergies, asthma, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, childhood obesity, Type 2 diabiates—which used to be called adult onset—and childhood cancers. In some cases—such as asthma and diabetes the rise as been so great—four fold and more—that the diseases are being called epidemic. Autism rates have risen almost 8 fold in just 10 years. Who here knows someone living with a chronic disease?

Health Trends at a Glance

These are all indicators to me, that we are getting something terribly wrong.

I love science. I love statistics. and I love stories. Together, all three of these, can help us understand just what is going in our children and with our selves, our communities, our future. Yet, I most caution you to beware the person, organization, or company that uses just one of these—science, statistics, or personal stories—and claim it as the truth.

To become experts on the care of our children, we must learn to do three things: 1. Fake it until you make it. 2. Worry Smarter. and 3. Ask Better Questions.

1. Fake it until you make it

Early in my green mama career I was hired by a daycare that wanted to go green. They were opening as a high-end option in Chicago during the recession. They decided to go green as a way to set themselves apart. They did everything I recommended—healthy finishes, green cleaning practices, natural mattresses and toys, organic food, breastfeeding stations… everything. A year after they opened, I came back to interview them. I wanted to know which thing had had the most bang for the buck—the easiest with the greatest impact.

“Cloth diapers” was the answer. They had taken what I had considered a far-fetched suggestion and decided to exclusively cloth diaper all 130 of their young children. I had had to train all of their staff as none of them had every used a cloth diaper before. Yet, when I did the follow-up review, two of the staff were pregnant and planning to cloth diaper there children. They spoke about how easy it was, how much less the cloth diapers smelled, and the two semi-truck loads of diapers they were saving from the landfill every year. The parents of the kids in daycare loved it—they said their kids got fewer diaper rashes and were easier to potty train.

When we had discussed cloth diapers, they had not been interested in any of these reasons. They just wanted to see the financial and marketing benefit—yet when I came back to check-in—they were true believers.

What happened?
I have always believed that we do what we believe. Right? For instance, if you believe that climate change is a problem you will drive less and make other climate-smart decisions. Thus, we try and get others to act climate-smart by brow beating them with facts so that they will believe. Surely, this study will get the likes of Donald Trump to believe in climate science, and then he will change his behaviours. But it doesn’t work this way, does it?

What I have since learned in researching the Green Mama book and especially looking at some of the current neuroscience, my understanding radically shifted.  We don’t just do what we believe, we believe what we do.

The perfect example of this is when the mother is hold the new baby in her arms. She smiles at the baby, the baby smiles back. Yes. They are smiling because they love each other, but the more they do it the more that they come to love each other.

No amount of me preaching to that daycare about how green they would be and how much they would be helping the planet and the health of the children’s bums would have made them switch to cloth diapers. No, they just did it for their own reasons and, then, their belief about it shifted and the information—the facts and the stats to support that information—had room to enter.

In business we call this fake it until you make it. But it can work with so many things. You don’t have to convince your husband that green cleaning products are better. Just do it and you will see that before long he just might be the one preaching to his friends about how great they smell and how many fewer headaches he gets.

The action of doing actually lays down new neurological pathways in the brain. These pathways are also called “habits.”

And nobody is better poised to change their habits than new parents. New parents actually grown new brains. New moms develop new grey matter and both mothers and involved fathers can develop thousands of new neurological pathways almost overnight. It’s a great time to put in any new habit that you want to try—want to learn to parallel park?  or, better, change a cloth diaper, read a label, or any other new parenting practice—this is the time to start.

2. Worry Smarter

When I was a new mother, we lived in Chicago and I didn’t have a car so I rode the bus and train a lot. Inevitably, every trip, the dirtiest and stinkiest homeless person would want to meet my baby and before I knew it her chubby little fingers would be wrapped around that guys dirty, stinky fingers. And then comes the moment…. where those chubby little fingers so recently exposed to who knows what—go towards her mouth.

And, what do I do? What every parent does—I go digging into the diaper bag to pull out… antibacterial hand soap, bum wipes, or some alcohol based hand sanitizer…..  it’s totally normal, it’s what we all do.

Yet, we have to learn to worry smarter. Why? Because why we are biologically designed to respond to the immediate and visible dangers: the lion running arose the plain, the steeps cliff ahead, or—in this case—the dirty homeless man—what the science tells us though is that actually in this case, the child is healthier without any of the options I just mentioned.

Our skins absorbs between 60 and 90 percent of what is put on it into our bodies. A baby is closest to 90%. So, let’s look at our options. The Antibacterial hand soap or wipes contain Triclosan a known toxic pesticide that has been linked to antibacterial resistant Super Bugs and is possibly carcinogenic.  The baby wipes likely contain neurotoxic phthalates and allergens from the perfumes and other ingredients. and The alcohol cleanser contains about 90% alcohol, of which 90% is being absorbed into their blood, and then possibly ingested in their mouths and YES kids really have gotten alcohol poisoning from using hand sanitizers.

At the same time we know that our immune systems develop healthier with exposure to dust, germs, and we are more bacteria than genetic material in our bodies.

Parents are designed to worry. We will always worry. But we are often designed to worry about the “Wrong” things for modern parenting—it isn’t the stranger kidnapping a child that we should worry about but the proven consequences of not letting our kids play outside unsupervised and the proven issues with our poor indoor air quality, lack of free play for kids, and lack of outdoor time.

Worry smarter.

3. Ask Questions

I’m going to tell you a secret. I’m a good girl. The only people more polite and sorry than Canadians are American Midwesterners that move to Canada. That’s me.

But good experts ask questions. We have to learn to ask questions of other experts, of researchers, of our grandmothers, institutions. And even of things like conventions, policies, and products.

Let me talk a bit more about that last one.

EcoAware Mom market includes more than 51 million  women, 69% of moms, and has more than $1.45 trillion in buying power according to a 2010 Consumer Trend Watch.

In other words, you represent a lot of money. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I had kids I certainly didn’t feel rich. What I felt was the force of all those companies trying to market to me—the decision maker that represented nothing but dollars to them. And companies have gotten very good at pretending to be healthier, more ethical, and more ecologically-minded than they are in order to make money off of you.

As a parent, even more than any other time in my life, I felt like I was being treated like a consumer more than a citizen. As if all those problems I listed before that our facing our world and our children, had more to do with the choices I made in the grocery aisle, online, or in the baby store.

All of this, this idea that parents are making the wrong consumer—or even parenting—choices and that is why are children are suffering is an awful blame-the-victim kind of mentality. There was a big study that was done last year and it showed that even low income mothers now are aware of the strong sense that they “should” be doing more to protect their children at the checkout aisle. And when they can’t afford to make healthier choices, they just further feel ashamed of their parenting.

This is not to say that we should just buy anything. Actually, I believe that it is essential that we spend our dollars like votes—if we can—and this is why it is important that every consumer learns to read labels (which is the equivalent of asking questions of a product). That when possible you choose to speak to a real farmer or producer and ask them the how and why.

And we have to see ourselves as more than consumers, but as citizens. That means asking questions of our governments, elected officials, policy-makers. Why isn’t healthy and safety the default?

Here are some more questions:
Are we selling the health of our children? For what price? Who does this policy really serve?
What would it look like to really care for our children? All of them—even the one whose parents don’t have the time, the education, or the money?

Asking better questions helps us to get the answers we need in order to know how to worry smarter. It also presupposes that their is an answer—remember back to the point about faking it until you make it? The act of having a child lays the neurological pathways for the possibility of hope—right?—having a child presupposes a future for them to grow into. Similarly, asking questions presents the possibility of answers—even answers that you want.

Only we can empower ourselves to become the experts on the care of our own families. And, it can start as easily as 1, 2, 3.


Learn more about how to become the expert on the care of your family in the Green Mama book or by Asking the Green Mama a question. And, of course, don’t forget to sign up for our truly awesome newsletter for regular doses of good advice (or just a little inspiration).



2 responses to “The Nature of Childhood Today: What to Know & What to Do”

  1. Nicolette says:

    So well written. I love the idea that, “We don’t just do what we believe, we believe what we do.” Reminds me of the concept of Power vs. Force. People learn and transform in different ways and I am not in the business of convincing – because I know I never really responded to that sort of energy. What impacts me is when someone shares their love of a topic or ideas with me – then I’m often inspired to try it for myself (that’s when the real magic happens). Thank you for this!!