Over the last year and a half, my three teenagers and two preschoolers have gamely participated in a long list of family “eco-challenges.” We’ve tackled everything from our water and energy consumption, to what we eat and how much garbage we produce. The teens’ cooperation has been mostly voluntary, so I don’t think they feel too hard done by. Still, I’m not sure they entirely buy into my green agenda. They’ve listened to my explanations and gone along with challenges if they weren’t too inconvenient, but overall I think they’re slightly amused by their mother’s green obsession.

It’s been an interesting journey. I’ve been concerned about environmental issues since I was a teen myself, but having children invested me in our planet’s health in a whole new way. My desire to live sustainably has only intensified since I began writing for this magazine 18 months ago. We’ve reached a critical moment in history: we’re not facing potential problems in some theoretical future anymore. The cracks in our system are showing, in mass species extinctions, in crop failures caused by climate change, in droughts and floods, oil spills and nuclear crises. I confess I’ve had some sleepless nights as I’ve tried to digest the bleak news I’ve been seeing and reading. Two questions keep surfacing as I grapple with these issues. How can I distance myself from the destruction caused by our modern way of living? And how do I prepare my children for the challenges they’re going to face without unduly frightening or depressing them?

The family eco-challenges have been an attempt to answer both questions. From the beginning, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to lecture or nag. As much as possible, I’ve wanted these challenges to be positive experiences with lasting results. At the same time, I do want to pass on some important information. It’s a balancing act that I’m still figuring out. I want my kids to be informed and to understand the issues, but I don’t want to overwhelm them.

With the little ones, it’s easy. Our low-impact shopping, cleaning, and transportation strategies are all normal to them—they don’t know anything different. To introduce them to the wonders of nature, we go to the beach and hike in the forest, and talk about what we see. Knowing how to approach the older ones is more of a challenge. They may be intellectually ready to grasp the issues facing our planet, but they’re also struggling with their own anxieties as they approach adulthood. I don’t want to overburden them. When an environmental subject does come up (usually when I’m introducing my latest green activity), I try to keep my explanations as straightforward and positive as possible. If and when my daughters want to engage at a deeper level, I’ll be ready.

Figuring out how to shrink our family’s footprint has been only one part of the journey. Respecting each family member’s place on the green continuum has been just as important. If I were single, I’d make some radical choices: eliminating a car, living in a small space with the heat down, and greatly simplifying my possessions. But I am blessed to live with six other people, each with needs and desires of their own. I’ve been learning a lot about healthy compromise and personal responsibility. For years I told myself I couldn’t live a simple life because I was part of a large family. That excuse didn’t hold up. I’ve discovered a number of sustainable choices I can make without inconveniencing anyone else. I can watch my own food miles, buy less “stuff” and simplify my personal care routine. I can walk or bike as transportation, take short showers, use cold water in the washer, and hang-dry laundry. I can be vigilant about turning off lights and shutting down power bars, without nagging everyone else. I can put cloth diapers on our two-year-old, and accept that my husband will use disposables when it’s his turn (he’s gone well beyond the call of duty in other areas). And the list goes on.

Lately my “family conversion” strategy has been largely passive. I’m hoping that my enthusiasm for green living will be both contagious and empowering, that my children—teens and preschoolers alike—will see that a more sustainable life is not only possible in our modern world, but that it can even be enjoyable. I get pleasure from community gardening and running errands on my bike. I’m thrilled when I’m able to repair something, or discover a new source for local food. I actually look forward to our hydro and water bills, and seeing how much we’ve conserved. And my kids see all of this.

Is this strategy working? It’s too early to say for sure. A few days ago I overheard my 17-year-old describing some of my green activities to a friend, with what sounded like pride in her voice. Now it’s possible that they were debating who had the most eccentric mother, and that my daughter was winning. I can live with that. At least she’s paying attention.

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found online at web link.