My sister, her husband and I were hiking on the west coast last summer, when the subject of our children’s future came up. I expressed grief that I was passing on a planet in crisis, that my kids would be inheriting the fall-out from climate change, resource limits, and other unprecedented challenges. My brother-in-law’s response was simple but thought-provoking: “We don’t give the world to our children, we give our children to the world.”

On the surface, this statement sounded like a quote I might skim over on Facebook, but the more I reflected on it, the more I realized its wisdom. The world isn’t ours to give, either to our children or anyone else. As individuals, we have virtually no control over what the planet will look like next year, in five years, or decades down the road. We can make reducing, reusing and recycling our religion, but unless governments, corporations and everyone else joins in, it won’t alter the world’s fate. Don’t get me wrong—these are still important things. I am a staunch believer in personal responsibility and the power of collective action. I wouldn’t write this column every month if I wasn’t. But I recognize that my own efforts are a drop in the bucket, and will not in themselves change the Earth.

What I can influence as a mother are my children’s lives. If that influence contributes to emotionally healthy, well-prepared, thoughtful human beings going out into the world, I will be giving the world a great gift indeed. As parents, surely that’s the most significant contribution we can make—albeit an extremely challenging one!

So what does the world need at this critical juncture? What kind of human beings should we be striving to raise? These are huge questions, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But after much reading and reflection over the last half year, these are some of the traits I think it’s important to pass on to our kids:

A deep connection to nature. Thanks largely to the pull of the digital world, our children spend less time outside than any previous generation. This has dire consequences both on our kids’ health and the health of the planet. Children who spend their lives in front of screens have little investment in the natural world, or in its preservation. Our children need to spend time in wild spaces. They need to gather berries, watch the salmon spawn, and feel dirt between their fingers and toes. It’s never been more urgent that we raise a generation of stewards and healers, but this can only happen if our kids have a real relationship with the natural world.

Reduced material expectations. For decades we’ve been consuming more “stuff” than we need—until our closets, houses, and landfills are overflowing. For decades we’ve known that our appetite wasn’t sustainable, but we’ve done nothing about it. It’s time to start ramping down, modeling to our kids that less can be more. Less stuff equals less waste, less debt, less clutter, less pollution, less resource depletion, and less exploitation of our neighbours overseas. Less stuff equals more space, more savings, more time for relationships, and more room for creativity.

A solid work ethic. We’ve got challenges ahead of us this century, and our kids will fare much better if they know how to roll up their sleeves. Work is one of the good four-letter words. It can be deeply satisfying and empowering when we turn it to good purposes, beginning with meeting our most basic needs. Conversely, what our children don’t need is a sense of entitlement. An inflated sense of entitlement is how North Americans came to be the greatest consumers and wasters on the planet.

Hands-on skills. We have become a very dependent culture—money buys us everything we need or desire. As a result, we’ve lost many basic skills: growing, raising and preserving our own food; making clothing and other necessities; improvising what we want from what we already have. At the very least these would be useful and productive hobbies to learn and pass on to our children. And in the event of an emergency or crisis, these skills would make us a lot less vulnerable.

The ability to think critically. To deal with the issues this century is bringing, our children will need to know how to think. They’ll need the skills to look past headlines, and to see through advertising campaigns. They’ll need to know how to ask questions, and cross-examine the answers. Given the current state of our mainstream culture, this one is going to be a challenge.

“C”qualities. Courage, compassion, co-operation and creativity—these are good qualities to promote in our children at any time, but they will be particularly valuable in the challenging decades ahead.

A realistic vision of the future. This is the one I struggle with. Climate change is scary. Peak oil* is scary. But we don’t have a crystal ball to see how the future will unfold, and I for one don’t want to alarm anyone unnecessarily. I certainly don’t want to make my youngest children fearful, or overwhelm or depress my young adult daughters. Still, I’m convinced these issues are going to profoundly impact their future lives, and I want them to be prepared. My compromise for the moment is to focus on the list of items above this one. If my kids are empowered and ready for anything, we don’t need to dwell on the frightening “what-ifs.”
The above list is of course just the beginning. Figuring out how to actually encourage these traits and skills in our children is where the real work lies!
*Richard Heinberg’s very thoughtful talks on peak oil and peak everything are available on YouTube, including one he recently gave at UBC. His books are also available through the library. But be warned: while Heinberg’s manner is gentle and intelligent, the subject is a heavy one.

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