“I know I’ve always been a little heavy-handed when it comes to communicating green-living values to my kids,” says Bookies Tampas, a mother of two in Burlington, Vermont. “Reducing, reusing, and recycling—it’s a big part of our family life.” Like many eco-minded types, Tampas purchases items that come in recyclable or refillable containers; recycles religiously; and saves food scraps for composting or even feeding the squirrels that inhabit her yard. But she didn’t realize how hard she’d drilled the message into her children them until her son Haven (now nine) started school.

When Haven was seven, Tampas sat down with him and calculated how much money and material they would save by having him bring milk to school in a thermos, instead of buying cartons in the cafeteria. “We figured out we could save $200 and keep over 500 cartons from being thrown away each school year,” she says. So Haven brought his lunch and thermos every day—until one day when he bought hot lunch at school. “I didn’t send the thermos that day, figuring that the cost of the milk was already included in the lunch,” Tampas says.

She didn’t give it a second thought until Haven arrived home from school, angry. “‘I was thirsty all day!’” he told her. “‘You forgot to pack my Thermos!’” Tampas found herself convincing her son that it was okay to get milk at school on the few occasions that he bought his lunch there.

But it was what she calls “the great recycling incident” that drove home the message that her offspring—who’d been her recycling assistants since they were toddlers—might be sacrificing fun in the name of green living. One day, Haven came home from school bragging about how much litter he’d cleaned up from the playground. “I assumed it was a class project, and a few days later I mentioned it to his teacher,” Tampas says. “The teacher quickly corrected me, saying that Haven had decided to spend every recess cleaning up the playground, and had even recruited a classmate to help. Fortunately, his teacher provided him with gloves and a bag!”

She realized then that her kids might not be old enough to grasp environmental responsibility in an age-appropriate way. “My husband and I had to tell him that some cleanup jobs can be dangerous and better left for professionals,” she says. “And that it was okay for him to have recess like the other kids.” As Haven has grown older, he’s become more realistic about his living green and doesn’t go to extremes like he used to. “But the green side of me is always tickled when I see him being thoughtful about his impact on the planet,” she says. “I love watching him pack his lunch, using only reusable containers to store the food. His little gestures are now automatic behaviors. And I hope that they last a lifetime.”

Story by Bari Nan Cohen. This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Help! I’ve greenwashed my kid!
A tale of one mom who's taught her kid earth-friendly values - and, maybe went a little overboard.