By Heather Cori Rader

"Mom, why don't people love the Earf?" asks my son, Jamin. He holds a bag bulging with the trash that he and his dad have picked up from our street.

"Because we don't teach our children about reverence," I reply. I smile as he tries the word out for the first time, forming his mouth carefully around the sounds. Reverence doesn't just roll off his tongue - it sounds more like wevewence - but the meaning holds true. I respect Jamin's questions by answering with genuine explanations, even if they are difficult to comprehend or pronounce.

In his thought-provoking book Seat of the Soul (Simon & Schuster, 1990), Gary Zukav writes, "Reverence is an attitude of honoring Life. Reverence is also simply the experience of accepting that all Life is, in and of itself, of value." Ah-ha! Reverence was the word I needed to articulate to my son our roles as stewards and caretakers of the Earth.

"Why don't people love the Earf?" My four-year-old is asking me to explain a confusing and sad reality. I share with him my belief that we let our daily lives become so busy that we are ignorant about where our food comes from, take for granted the aquifers beneath our feet, and ignore the alarming buildup of waste. Useless gadgets intended to make our lives easier merely isolate us further. We trade doing the "right thing" for the easy way out.

"But you can change that," I add.

"How?" he quizzes.

How, indeed? Countless times I've asked myself, "How can I make a difference?" Am I living authentically, in a way that embodies my personal values? Popular opinion appears to be contrary to the truth of what is real and important. We live in a political climate in which our nation's leaders want to destroy a precious ecosystem and cut funding for research into renewable resource technologies. The " American Way " has become synonymous with consumption. I drive by billboards that read, "Happiness is just three miles ahead on the left," and then direct traffic to a shopping mall. When I look at the butt of a bus and see an ad for "Bibsters," the new disposable bib designed for the busy mom, I shake my head and feel physically weighed down. It's more important now than ever before to teach our children, our future decision-makers and leaders, about reverence.

In response to Jamin's question, I began pointing out small things that our family does to show reverence for the Earth. We have a 20-gallon garbage can that the four or us rarely fill each week. One Wednesday afternoon, as we were walking that can down our driveway, I told Jay why I buy products at the co-op that have 'natural packages,' such as fruits and vegetables, or packages that can be recycled.

"Paper, cans, glass, and plastic," he says, accounting for each of the recycling containers.

"Want to know why we use cloth napkins?" He nods. "Where do paper napkins go when they're dirty?"

"Garbage," he responds.

"Where do we put the cloth ones?"

"Washer." He brightens. "And then we use them again!"

I draw his attention to the cloth bags we carry our groceries in. He asks, surprised, "Doesn't everybody bring their own bags?" I tell him that we don't buy disposable diapers for his little sister, Maya, because that, too, adds to the waste. The average person contributes about four pounds of waste each day, and disposable diapers alone can double or triple household waste. (I also have concerns over the "superabsorbent chemicals" next to my baby's precious bum.) Despite well-meant warnings about two working parents being unable to "find the time" to diaper and launder the old-fashioned way, we made cotton diapers a requirement from day one, even when choosing Maya's daycare. It is a way of life for us, and thanks to diaper wraps and biodegradable liners, it's easier than we ever imagined. On the rare nights that I am up at 10 p.m. rinsing diapers, I remind myself that this is a gift to my children - one that might go unnoticed, but I know it exists.

Back-to-school shopping this year did not include hitting the local mall; instead, we visited nine consignment shops. We spent $200 for five bags of next-to-new clothes. Imagine! Recycling my own kids' clothes by consignment makes me feel good about keeping quality clothes in circulation. It's a small step toward living simply. Every shoe, every T-shirt, every pair of pants that I buy used instead of new makes me feel more socially responsible. One child's outgrown T-shirt is another's new one.

Recently, Jay fell out of an apple tree and ripped a hole in his soccer-ball shirt. After the tears had subsided and his scratches had become badges of boyhood honor, he said, "You're going to sew that up, aren't you? It shouldn't just get thrown away." Again, I'm reminded that there is hope.

Environmentally friendly choices are something I struggle with all the time. With every decision, I try to put the Earth ahead of the requirements of economy and efficiency. But while I struggle, I talk to my kids about it. The most important decision I've made and have lived for the last year is to buy all our food at our local co-op. If it's not available there, we don't eat it. The co-op buyers make it easier for me to shop because of their stringent requirements for what makes it onto their shelves, from organic foods to packaging made of recycled materials to supporting eco-friendly companies. Still, there are unavoidable items, such as the individual plastic pudding cups the kids love.

"Can we please?" they chime.

"Where will those cups go when you're finished?" I ask.

"The garbage," Jamin pipes up.

"Hmmm," I ponder. "What if we bought the box of pudding mix and made it ourselves?"

Soon we are headed to the next aisle with a box of butterscotch pudding, talking about who will measure the milk and who will stir with the whisk. Jay is saddened to give up the pudding cups, but he sees the bigger picture. He's been to the landfill several times, where he was amazed at how much trash people produce. He's already surmised that the only way to stop adding to that pile is to stop producing so much waste.

Along with environmental enlightenment come responsibilities. Jay became our chief composter when he turned four. Four years old equals four daily jobs. Every day he puts on his boots and leads his fuzzy blond-headed sister by the hand to drop off our vegetable matter, eggshells, and burned pancakes in the compost heap by the garden. His grandpa, Pop, turns that soil and uses it in the raised garden beds for potatoes, lettuce, and corn. Jay can tell you from experience that the food we compost becomes the nutrients in the soil for other plants.

Are there other miniature composters, recyclers, and opinionated preschoolers with pressing environmental concerns? I know there are; yet, at a recent McDonald's birthday party, I seemed to have the only child who, at age three, had never tasted a Happy Meal. In our family, a happy meal is one where all four of us gather around the table.

I have a utopian fantasy I call "Biological Warfare," in which we raise reverent kids (the biological part) who then go out and wage war (nonviolently, of course) against crimes committed against our Earth: crimes such as consumerism; infractions such as complacency, a dangerous attitude that stifles much-needed change and movement; and the ever-present abuse of poisoning, stripping, and dumping on our Mother.

In my dreams, as this biological warfare permeates the nation, child warriors stand and testify: "We don't play guns at my house because they hurt people." They bring whole foods in their lunches, refusing to fill their bodies with chemicals and preservatives. Stimulation via TV and violent video games wanes to nothing. They educate themselves and speak up against the grown-ups who think that recycling, composting, and reducing waste don't make a difference. And when the bag of hand-me-downs comes through the door, our reverent children don't turn up their noses; they are glad the clothes are finding another use.

The other day, as we were pulling out of a parking lot, Jay asked, "What's that word again, Mom?"

"What word?"

"The word that means loving things."

"Oh - reverence?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, looking out the open window. "That man right there with the cigarette, he doesn't have any. I wish he did."

I turned to see a man absently wiggle his toe over a cigarette butt, snuffing out its smoke.

What I want to say is this: Live by example, and live out loud with your children. Tell them about what reverence means to you and how to manifest it in one's life.

Gary Zukav says, "To live with reverence means being willing to say, 'That is Life, we must not harm it,' and 'Those are our fellow humans, we must not destroy them,' and mean it. It means reexamining the way that we treat the members of the animal kingdom that serve us so patiently. It means recognizing the rights of the Earth."

Teach your children "the rights of the Earth" by inviting them to consider everything from the garbage on the side of the road to the packaging of pudding cups to the cigarette butt on the ground. Our every action toward the Earth matters that much. Inspire your children to express reverence in all they do. We need those weird, reverent kids to carry on. If we do our job now, then in generations to come, when our children's children ask their parents, "Why do people love the Earf?" the answer will be simple: "Because we have reverence for every living thing."


Books to Read Aloud

Cone, Molly. Come Back, Salmon: How a Group of Dedicated Kids Adopted Pigeon Creek and Brought It Back to Life . Sierra Club Juveniles, 1994. The story of a class that adopts a creek and makes some radical environmental changes for the good of the community.

Glaser, Linda. Compost! Growing Gardens From Your Garbage. Millbrook Press, 1996. A child's perspective on composting and the role of the steward.

O'Brian, Michael. I Helped Save the Earth: 55 Fun Ways Kids Can Make a World of Difference. Berkley Publishing, 1991. Presents facts about choices made in the home and how to make a difference.

Peet, Bill. The Wump World. Houghton Mifflin, 1981. The Wump World was an unspoiled place until inhabitants from the planet Pollutus came to stay.

Seuss, Dr. The Lorax. Random House, 1971. The perfect bedtime story to get kids thinking about the consequences of pollution and the difference between wants and needs.

Showers, Paul. Where Does the Garbage Go? Scott Foresman, 1994. With interesting illustrations and easy-to-understand language, this book goes through the process of waste collection, storage, and their consequences.

Books for Older Kids

Anderson, Joan. Earth Keepers. Gulliver Books, 1993. A nonfiction book about people caring for land, water, animals, and each other.

Archer, Jules. To Save the Earth: The American Environmental Movement. Viking Press, 1998. Short biographies of John Muir, Rachel Carson, David McTaggart, and Dave Foreman.

The Earth Works Group. 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. Bt Bound, 1999. A great book to help kids move into the "action" phase of service learning. The same group is also responsible for 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Recycle (Bathroom Readers Press, 1994).


Heather Cori Rader is a writer and teacher who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her children, Jamin Kurtis and Maya Isabel, were the inspiration for this piece; her husband, Kurt, encouraged her to get it down on paper. She believes that raising reverent kids does make a difference and continues to write articles about her often humorous, always miraculous warrior family.

Originally appeared in Mothering magazine Issue 117, March/April 2003

Image: Stefano Montagner