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Raising Kids in the Age of Environmental Guilt

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In her new book, Paige Wolf commiserates with those of us who know too much about the perils of modern life.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Mar 6, 2017

Child
When I saw the title of Paige Wolfe’s new book, Spit That Out! The Overly Informed Parent’s Guide to Raising Healthy Kids in the Age of Environmental Guilt, I jumped at the chance to read it. As an eco-conscious (and eco-anxious) parent of two young kids, those words spoke to me. I recoil almost daily at something my kids come in contact with or that some well-meaning grownup gives them to eat. You know what I’m talking about. Those peculiar items you find in party “goody” bags and as prizes at the dentist’s office like wiggly creatures made of who-knows-what and costume jewelry made in China that would likely have been among the 81% of dollar store products containing dangerous levels of lead, phthalates, and other stuff I don’t want near my kids’ little bodies.

Yup, I’m that mom who won’t let kids get their faces painted at fairs and throws out glow-in-the-dark Halloween teeth. As a health and environmental writer, I unfortunately find something new I’d like to avoid pretty much every week of the year, from PVC in shoes and backpacks, PCBs in schools, carcinogens on playgrounds, and chemicals in drinking water. But the more I read, the more I find other parents out there just as worried as I am, some even more meticulous about avoiding potential toxins.

We all face the same challenges in a world where health takes a backseat to profit and convenience. And then there’s the question we must grapple with as our kids mature: How to explain our decisions without causing kids to resent us or see the world as a dangerous place, which to be honest, I think it is? What’s the eco-anxious parent to do?

Advice for Overly Informed Parents from Overly Informed Parents

Spit that out!
Wolf’s book is just what overly-informed parents need. Chapters cover the gamut of toxic dangers the world holds for our kids, and Wolf includes plentiful comments from parents and green living experts trying to navigate a polluted world and too much information. Hearing the voices of other concerned parents helps us see that we’re not alone, even if we seem to be the only one in our social circles worrying about these matters.

When our friends and families view our decisions with incomprehension or even disdain, we can feel like the uphill battle we’re fighting becomes even steeper. In my own social circles, I feel like an extremist in limiting my kids’ exposure to chemicals and junk food. In the online communities of other green parents I’ve found, however, I’m far from the strict end of the spectrum. Hearing the voices of other parents with a range of attitudes helps me think through the places where I’m willing to bend and those where I’m not.

The book, Wolf explains, “originated in commiseration,” an effort to bring together the viewpoints of those struggling to deal with the complexities of parenting in a toxic world. It soon morphed, Wolf says, into an attempt to “sort what we really need to be concerned about, what we can and can’t control.” If you’re trying to make sense of what issues are worth expending your limited time and energy on, Wolf’s practical tips can help.

Covering topics from diapering and clothing to food and toys, the chapters of Spit That Out provide overviews of issues parents face trying to raise green kids. The book not only explains the harmful ingredients in our foods and cleaners, it also addresses the ways the world conspires against making healthier choices and how parents navigate unhealthy party favors and daycare snacks.

Perfect Just Ain’t Possible

Children swimming
Wolf is a fast-talking, passionate advocate of sane approaches to sustainable living. Her book is non-judgmental, and she’s always ready to admit her own lapses — because, as she says “being perfect just ain’t possible.” Wolf’s message is balance; since we can’t avoid all these dangers completely, it’s best to recognize that a little unhealthy stuff likely won’t do irreparable damage if you’ve created a healthy haven in your home.

Again and again, the book finds places in the eco-conscious parent’s world where our idealism smacks up against a far-from-ideal reality. Whether it’s the cost of organic clothing or the vinyl in our kids’ schools, Wolf gives us tools for bringing the world we live in more in line with our eco-ideals. In some cases, that’s advice on choosing safer products, in others it’s calling our elected representatives or organizing other parents to lobby for change.

She also highlights a number of ways our eco-conscious habits may wind up less green than we expect, whether it’s the upcyling of old crayons (that happen to contain asbestos!) or apparently green hand-me-downs that turn out to contain PVC and lead. The parents she spoke with weigh in on what to do with the stuff you won’t let your kids keep because of toxicity concerns. Is it better to send it to the landfill than to Goodwill so you’re not endangering someone else’s child?

By far my favorite chapter — as well as the one Wolf says she had the most trouble writing — has the telling title, “Aw You Shouldn’t Have. No, Really, You Shouldn’t Have.” Once you’ve learned about the dangers of food dyes and heavy metals in costume jewelry, it’s tough not to jump out of your skin every time a well-meaning relative offers your kids neon-colored candy or gives them a toy you’re pretty sure adds significantly to their toxic burden. Hearing from other parents dealing with the same challenges, from “treats” given by doting grandparents to toxic holiday gifts, consoled me a good deal. Wolf reminds us that one blue lollipop won’t kill them, but she also gives us some tools from psychology to help us encourage others in our lives to do better as well.

Baby in field of flowers
The section of the book that gave me the most hope lets a “jury” of parents weigh in on dealing with information overwhelm and green guilt. Parents of older children report that their efforts to model eco-conscious behavior have borne fruit, and their kids have the eco-awareness our planet needs in the next generation. Wolf also points out the sea change occurring in the marketplace as more of us wake up to the dangers in the old ways of doing things.

From Concern to Activism

Wolf acknowledges the paralysis that come from too much information and helps readers to boil issues down to their fundamentals. Most of all, she counsels the importance of both making allowances and taking action. “We can’t do everything,” she says, “but we can do something. And we are exponentially stronger together.”

Wolf runs a Spit That Out blog and Facebook Group as well, where her readers share concerns and seek to solve problems. Wolf has seen a “new urgency” in this community about citizen activism. While recent attacks on the health and welfare of Americans may seem to dwarf our concerns about GMOs in school lunches, Wolf contends that “what I can control is more important than ever.” She believes that while worrying about toxins in kids’ toys might seem small compared to issues involving civil rights, making informed decisions about controllable matters empowers parents at a time they might feel most disempowered.

Protests
Wolf views “activism as an antidote to despair” and provides some terrific ways even the most time- or budget-strapped among us can do our bit to make the world a little better in her “Budget Activist” guide. Indeed, in recent months, Wolf has thrown herself into the political fray, attending several rallies each week with her kids to protest recent attacks on the environment and public education while promoting political activism on her blog and social media.

The message Wolf wishes readers to take away from her book? “Perfect is unattainable. But better is always possible,” whether that’s voting with your dollars for safer products or calling your elected representatives. Everyday more us are doing a little better to protect our kids and make their future a little safer.

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Raising Kids in the Age of Environmental Guilt

susannahshmurak

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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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  • this is a tough balance. I have teens now and am trying hard to instill a sense of environmental concern while still letting them enjoy junk food at high school football games. I have very little control over them any more and just hope all my early life lessons are remembered one day when they head off on their own!

    • Thanks for your comment. I think you’ll be pleased with how well they remember those early life lessons you bestowed on them.

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