Gruesome Pirates, Heroic Grandpas, and Graeme…

One of the reasons my dad is great is because when my son Graeme asks him to draw a pirate, he grabs whatever paper and writing implement is to hand and effortlessly produces stuff like this:

Or this:

At this point I need to make a confession.

“Forgive me, Parents who have been Parenting Longer than I, for I have sinned. Before I had children, I was inclined to Judge Thee In My Heart Without Knowing What the Heck Your Life was Like.”

“I wrongly believed that any Child Enamored of Violence Had Been Left to His Electronic Devices to Absorb the Evil Influences of Movies, TV, Violent Video Games, and Martial Arts.”

Now that I’m six years into this parenting racket, I’m not ready to call “nurture” an “assumption”, but I’m much less Blank Slate than I used to be. My boys, they have a very limited media diet. I’m a pacifist, for cryin’ out loud! Nonetheless, my boys crave pirates, knights, and anything involving weapons. They just do. They always have!

Graeme (3) even wants to change his name to “Graeme Pirate Stone.” Oh, and? He’s not satisfied if a pirate has just one deadly weapon. They must have, at least, a sword and a dagger–

My dad was initially reluctant to give in to every request for a drawing, fearful that Graeme would not stretch out his own little creative wings and make his own art. Never fear, Dad. Graeme carries the pictures around with them, colors them in, scribbles on them, and is {finally!} starting to produce his own Scary Art:

{Have I mentioned that Graeme also has a thing for TEETH? “Make teeth, Grandpa. Scaryteeth.”}

But the best part of Graeme’s obsession with his grandpa’s art is the way he sits by, watching delightedly, occasionally even panting with utter delight and anticipation as he watches Grandpa’s squiggles, dots, and lines become something that quickens his pulse, frightens him just a little, and fascinates him a lot.

Watching that tiny boy’s delight is almost sacramental, and I don’t say that lightly.

{Even if I do wish he was delighted in Grandpa’s drawing of somewhat less gruesome subject matter.}

Those of you who have children: have you ever been surprised by the things that capture their imaginations?

Second Generation, Part Two

While I’m away, I’ve been posting essays, reviews, and articles that have either appeared elsewhere on the Web or else have never before been seen! This one originally appeared in Catapult, but was written more than three years ago…still, the story’s worth telling, I think…

{Part Two}

A recently-published book that presents itself as a guide to raising a “green” baby seems to suggest that “green” parenting is all about purchasing the right products: the organic sleepers, the low-VOC nursery paints and the petrochemical-free baby wash. Though consumption of these products probably has a place, I want to think that we can do more for our children than simply teach them which products to buy. Certainly, I don’t want to use a toxic baby shampoo on my newborn. And, on balance, I do think that diapering with cloth is better for his health and for that of the planet. But if I am concerned about the future — of the earth and of my sons as they make their way upon it — I need a vision of sustainable parenting that goes beyond yet another consumer choice.

I think sustainable parenting should begin with the Creation narrative — that God created the world and declared it “good” should call us to affirm its goodness with respect and thanksgiving.  As we teach our children about God, we should not neglect teaching them about God’s Creation.  From there, it’s important, I think, to combat what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder.” Even if you live in the city, it’s possible to help your children enjoy the outdoors: take them to the park or playground and point out plants, flowers, and birds. They may surprise you with what they can learn and remember.  My toddler can distinguish several species of bird, for example, and knows the names of a few flowers. Providing books with quality illustrations of animals and landscapes can also help instill a sense of wonder, as can carefully selected nature documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series. If we want our children to care for and protect God’s creation, we must teach them both about God and his creation. They won’t be able to love either without first knowing something about each.

As we meet our children’s basic physical needs — food, clothing and shelter — we can build upon their understanding of God and his creation, and teach them to recognize the effects our consumption have upon the earth. If you can take your child to the farmer’s market or to a farm, she will learn that food comes from the earth before it comes to the supermarket. Even better, grow a garden with her, even if it’s just an indoor herb garden. That’s all we have the space for right now, and my toddler gets a kick out of seeing freshly plucked leaves of basil go into his pasta sauce. Eating locally helps develops a sense of connection to and dependence upon the earth, and eating seasonally helps develop a sense for the rhythm of the year — it’s strawberry time, it’s pumpkin time, and so on. Also, it teaches our children (and us!) the virtue of patience as we wait for the strawberries and for the lettuce. In her advocacy for local and seasonal eating, Barbara Kingsolver pokes fun at the parent who insists that his child save sex for marriage yet can’t himself “wait for the right time to eat a tomato.”

When it comes to clothing and shelter and other kinds of consumption, instilling the virtue of voluntary simplicity will be easier if we ourselves have learned to be content with what we have. And although we should be careful not to burden young children with guilt, exploring together how other children around the world live — and that the planet cannot support all of us living as most Westerners do — can be a way to help curb consumptive desire. UNICEF has a beautifully illustrated book for children ages nine to 12 called A Life Like Mine that provides a positive, though sobering, perspective on children’s lives around the world. Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth’s Wonderful Earth! is a funny, sobering, and hopeful meditation on the wonder of God’s handiwork and the need to care for creation. Books and stories that value simplicity, creativity and thrift, like the Little House series, can also help a child to value these things over unnecessary consumption.

But again, I think our teaching must be mostly without words.  We must embody the values we wish our children to embody. But it’s equally important, I think, to enjoy the things we wish our children to embody — and the things we want them to enjoy! It’s one thing to tell a child how important it is to eat local food; it’s entirely another to explore a farmer’s market together, and then to give thanks to God for a delicious shared local meal. Let them see your genuine joy as you choose simplicity, as you seek out earth-friendly alternatives and as you reduce your consumption generally. Perhaps the best way to teach our children to care for the earth is simply to demonstrate our love for God, our love for our neighbors and our love and respect for the creation. We should love our children enough to love these things; by loving them, we will teach them. My children helped me to begin to care for God’s creation; it’s my turn to help them do likewise.

Author’s Note: I wrote this piece over three years ago, when my children were really small. As I read back over what I’ve written here, I realize how much they’ve continued to teach me. Aidan, now an inquisitive six-year-old, routinely asks me things like, “Do motorcycles make carbon dioxide?” and, “When will it be cucumber time?”  I’m so grateful to see how even some of my puniest efforts to live more lightly — sewing and repairing clothes, canning my own jam and growing a huge veggie garden — have inspired my boys to adopt a “can-do,” DIY spirit, a spirit that sends them outdoors to design imaginary gardens and rescue worms (“We need them for the soil!”) and to cardboard boxes, tape and string instead of to the toy store. I’m grateful that they have the freedom to create and delight in Creation, and I hope that in 30 years, they’ll be living in such a way so as to help bring a similar kind of freedom to the millions of children who don’t yet have it.

Second Generation, Part One

While I’m away, I’ve been posting essays, reviews, and articles that have either appeared elsewhere on the Web or else have never before been seen! This one originally appeared in Catapult, but was written more than three years ago…still, the story’s worth telling, I think…

Before I had my first child, I thought that people who brought their own bags to the grocery store were weird, that recycling was a waste of time and organic food a waste of money. But now Aidan’s nearly three, and last week during a meal of vegetables from our organic CSA share, he declared, “This kohlrabi is delicious!” He reminds me to take the “green bags” before we leave to go shopping, and he helps to sort the recycling. He plays with a small wooden toy recycling truck; he’s been brought up (mostly) in cloth diapers, and now he loves to dig in the garden with his child-sized spade while I hang his newborn brother’s diapers on the clothesline.

What happened?

You’ve probably heard of the Great Law of the Iroquois (there’s a company that has taken their name from it); it states that every tribal decision must consider the impact that decision will have on the next seven generations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t mindful of the effects my actions had upon the Earth until I actually looked the next generation in the face. As I threw away diaper after diaper in those early months, I began to feel uneasy. Where did they go once they left our trashcan? And as I nursed Aidan day after day (and came across an article on pesticide residues in human milk, and one on the beef industry) I began to think that maybe I shouldn’t be eating a 16oz steak every Friday night. When I put him in the bathtub, I began wondering about the potentially toxic residues from cleaning products.

As I slowly began to learn about all things “green,” and to make gradual changes in our household (drastically cutting our meat consumption, eating organic vegetables, using cloth diapers and reusable grocery bags), I became ashamed of my complacency toward the Earth, and began to strive to learn more, and to do better — and I’m still striving. It’s not only that I worry about the kind of world my sons are going to grow up to inherit (though it makes me terribly sad to think of the ever-growing piles of trash they’ll receive, and the glorious biodiversity that they won’t); I want them to grow up to be good stewards of the earth, to serve and guard it, to cultivate and keep it, as God commanded Adam to keep Eden.


My friend Nicki is an Episcopal priest and a homeschooling mother of three. Not long ago, she organized a series of lectures to coincide with the Harvest Festival, to address questions related to Christianity and the environment. Most impressive to me were the questions and ideas raised by her eight year old son, Teddy. When we sat gathered to share thoughts and resources for “greener” living, though many adults remained quiet, Teddy contributed thoughtfully several times. It was clear that Nicki and her husband had not only taught Teddy to care about the Earth, but also, to think and act creatively in response to our present environmental crisis.

Some time later, I asked Nicki about her philosophy of ‘green’ parenting.  Incidentally, she’d stopped by to give me a bag of hand-me-down cloth diapers outgrown by her son Henry. She looked over at our sons, who were playing together on Aidan’s dilapidated ride-on car, something we’d inherited from a fellow graduate student family, shrugged her shoulders, and began talking about how Teddy is in charge of checking the country of origin labeling on apples (we live in the UK where country of origin labeling is the law; thankfully, “C.O.O.L.” will soon be law in the USA) and makes sure that they don’t buy anything grown outside the UK. Teddy also knows about the benefits of getting around by bicycle rather than car; she told me that often, it’s he that insists they cycle rather than drive.

As I talked with Nicki, I recognized afresh that children do what their parents do, and, to some extent, care about what their parents care about. Nicki herself is committed to the “Fife diet” (Fife is the kingdom, or county, where we live), even to the point of denying herself foods that she loves. She regularly meets with friends to swap clothing and other things that she no longer needs, and, let’s not forget — she came to my house that day to bring me secondhand cloth diapers for my new baby! She seems, to me, to do her best to live responsibly and authentically before her watching children. And they have certainly learned from her.