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Inconvenient Youths

By Ellen Gamerman (The Wall Street Journal) - January 2, 2007

Jim and Robyn Dahlin knew replacing the roof of their home in Greenbrae, Calif., would be expensive. But they hadn’t planned to spend an extra $15,000 on solar panels. For that, they have their 8-year-old son, Luke, to thank.

After Luke acted in a school play about global warming, he went on a campaign to get his parents to install the panels. He routinely lectured his dad from the backseat of the minivan about how reducing their energy consumption could help save the planet.

Mr. Dahlin says he put Luke off at first, not wanting to “just give in and sound like a big wet-noodle parent.” But after doing more research about the energy savings, he relented. Luke, he says, “is proud that we’re trying to do our part.”

In households across the country, kids are going after their parents for environmental offenses, from using plastic cups to serving non-grass-fed beef at the dinner table. Many of these kids are getting more explicit messages about becoming eco-warriors at school and from popular books and movies.

This year’s global-warming documentary “Arctic Tale,” for instance, closes with a child actor telling kids, “If your mom and dad buy a hybrid car, you’ll make it easier for polar bears to get around.” Kids on field trips to the Garbage Museum in Stratford, Conn., are sent home with instructions to recycle cans, bottles, newspaper and junk mail. The museum hosted 388 schools visits last year, 42 more than the year before. At one California elementary school, kids are given environmental activities to do with their families — including one where parents have to yank out the refrigerator and clean the coils to make it more energy efficient.

“Kids are putting pressure on their parents, and this is a very good thing,” says Laurie David, a producer of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Ms. David is the co-author of a new children’s book, “The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming,” which urges kids, among other things, to petition mom and dad for recycled-fiber toilet paper. “I know how powerful my kids are,” she says. “When they want something, forget it — all the resistance in the world isn’t going to help you.”

For Sherrie Mahnami, some tactics go too far. Last month, the mother from Concord, Calif., took her 4-year-old son, Jacob, to see “Arctic Tale.” At bedtime, when she got him into his Mickey Mouse pajamas, he asked, “Mom, do you think they’ll have ice next year?” She didn’t like the part of the film where she says kids started to “preach” about energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs. “I thought that was a little much.”

Some parents object to what they see as proselytizing by their kids’ schools. Mark D. Hill, who until recently was chairman of the Republican party in Marin County, says some mothers called him upset when their children came home from Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., with fliers stuffed in their backpacks advertising a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The parents thought the public school shouldn’t promote the screening, which was paid for by a local parent, because they considered it a political statement.

Sally Peck, the principal of Bacich, disagrees. “We have a responsibility to educate our children,” she says.

Mr. Hill says the mothers worried their children would be criticized if they spoke out, so they kept their names secret. “It’s very scary for mothers,” he says. “They kind of go with the programs because they don’t want to be viewed as trouble-makers.”

In Princeton, N.J., James Verbeyst’s energy-saving fixation cost his mother $5,500 — the difference between the Toyota Matrix she was going to buy and the hybrid she finally purchased. With every car she looked at that wasn’t a Prius, the 8-year-old protested by announcing the Prius’s gas mileage. James says now he likes the Prius more than his dad’s Jaguar. His reason: “You’re not hurting any animals.”

The New Jersey Environmental Federation, a chapter of the nonprofit Clean Water Action, tells kids on its Web site to ask their parents to take a “no-idling pledge” when they bring them to and from school. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site has “Captain Earthworm” instructing kids to tell their parents to return used oil to gas stations and lube centers.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the New York nonprofit, has been trying to secure permission from various media companies to use a cartoon character to spread the word. “It is the really, really young kids who are going to change their parents’ behavior,” says Phil Gutis, the group’s spokesman, adding that the message to children ought to be straightforward: “I think it’d be as simple as, ‘Kids, tell your parents.’ ”

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says it recently dedicated three additional staffers to target elementary school kids, and has added interactive quizzes for kids on its Web site. (“Going vegetarian is the best thing that you can do for animals, the Earth, and your health. True/False?”)

A spate of environmentally themed books aimed at the youth market — including kids under 10 — has come out in the past two years, with more on the way. The young-adult version of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” sold more than 100,000 copies — Penguin Young Readers Group’s biggest nonfiction title in five years.

Nicole Thomas thought her 4-year-old son’s interest in the environment was cute — until he told her she needed to quit drinking coffee. Ailer said he’s worried that coffee growers in Central America are cutting down forests to grow their crops. “Going to a coffee shop with a kid who’s saying, ‘Mommy, you can’t have a cup of coffee’ isn’t very pleasurable,” says the 35-year-old mom from Boulder, Colo.

Ailer’s obsession with the rain forest started when a neighbor gave him a copy of the book “The Umbrella” about a boy who walks into the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica and discovers exotic animals like the kinkajou and toucan. His mother was soon raiding the library to find more books, like Jane Goodall’s “The Chimpanzees I Love: Saving Their World and Ours.”

Ailer often tells his mom about the wonders of composting and runs around the supermarket parking lot picking up trash. He has pestered her, his grandmother and a Safeway cashier to get rid of plastic bags and use reusable cloth ones instead. In response to his complaint, the cashier fired back that eating fast-food hamburgers is worse than using plastic, referring to the environmental impact of beef production. Now Ailer is bugging his mom to stop buying hamburgers.

Kids were tapped by the green movement as early as the 1970s, when recycling bins started showing up in schools. In 1971, Keep America Beautiful famously launched its antipollution-ad campaign featuring the “crying Indian.” Today, eco-marketers are going a step further — not just teaching kids to recycle, but using them as a proxy in the war against their opponents.

Some groups are fighting back. In response to Ms. David’s new book about global warming, for example, the Science & Public Policy Institute, a nonprofit in Washington that takes aim at what it calls fallacies about global warming, issued a press release saying the book “is intentionally designed to propagandize unsuspecting schoolchildren who don’t have enough knowledge to know what is being done to them.”

Earlier this month, a book called “The Sky’s Not Falling! Why It’s OK to Chill About Global Warming” hit the shelves. Its author, Holly Fretwell, says she sees it as an answer to what she calls “one-sided” environmental messages kids are getting in school and from books. “While riding a bike saves energy and is a great exercise, it gives you less time to do other things, like sports or homework,” she writes. “We drive our car because it gets us to work and play faster.”

But many kids take the environmental message to heart. Benjamin Adelson, a first grader at Poughkeepsie Day School in New York, started asking his parents to conserve more energy after he watched a presentation about recycling performed by third and fourth graders.

The 7-year-old recently decided he should try to help the cause by turning off his night-light. But when his older sister, Rowan, unplugged it at bedtime, he was soon screaming, “Help!” from his bunk bed. “I’m scared of the dark, so it’s a real problem,” says Benjamin. His father, Jay Adelson, founder of the social Web site Digg.com, says Benjamin’s conservation concerns border on the obsessive: “He sees the cutting down of a tree as a sacrilegious and awful event.”

Fiona Henderson, a first-grader in Denver, got her environmental calling at church. One of the ministers had been talking about global warming and the Environmental Protection Agency’s children’s climate-change Web site, where kids can click on a drawing of an Earth with a bandage on it to learn about greenhouse gases.

Fiona, 6, started pestering her parents, John and Margit, to use the lights less often. She walked around shutting off lights, told her father not to drive to work and now gives 25 cents from her $1.50 weekly allowance to various environmental causes.

“She’s not so much upset as strident — ‘Turn off that light! Turn off that light!’ ” says Mr. Henderson. “We ended up having conversations with her that it’s OK to use energy.”

HOW TO MANAGE YOUR ACTIVIST KID

Your daughter wants you to get a Prius but you don’t want to spend an extra $3,000. Brian Day, executive director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, a professional nonprofit group based in Washington, says it helps to tell children that there’s more than one way to cut down on carbon emissions. He recommends driving less, and reminding kids about carpools.

Your son comes home from school and hassles his little sister to save energy by not using her nightlight. Watching an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants” on TV uses more energy than one nightlight does in an entire night, Mr. Day says. Still, he recommends that the sister unplug her nightlight during daylight hours, since it uses energy even if it’s not turned on.

Your son is worried rising oceans will submerge the house. William Doherty, director of the University of Minnesota’s Marriage and Family Therapy program and the author of three books on parenting, says most children shouldn’t hear doomsday scenarios until they’re at least 10 years old. But if they do pick up information that scares them, he recommends telling them that they’re not in imminent danger and that being aware of the problem makes it easier to prevent it.

The kids are complaining to Dad that Mom’s tossing plastic pudding cups in the trash. Where possible, Mr. Doherty recommends presenting a unified front, telling the children to talk directly to that parent and reminding them that it’s not nice to tattle.

Your daughter wants biodegradable toys but you don’t know which ones fit the bill. Most child therapists say it’s OK to admit to your kids when you don’t know the answer — but don’t forget to try to find the information and follow up.

The kids are insisting you change all the bulbs to compact fluorescents and you’d rather not.
“Reassert your leadership in a calm way,” Mr. Doherty says. Children feel more secure when they aren’t acting like they’re the parents, he says.