Buried in Stuff

Two of the most basic responsibilities that parents have are to provide for their children’s needs and protect them. What if, though, in our efforts to provide for our kids, we are putting them and their future in irreversible peril?

garbage-2729608_1920Children need a lot of stuff. Of course we must provide the basics: food, water, shelter,  but then we add books, movies, toys, clothes, and other “necessities” in our efforts to nurture. The pressure to buy children all of these items comes from every direction and is not only felt by parents, but also friends and family who want to show children they love and care about them through these trinkets.

We adorn our kids in a multitude of outfits they will grow out of in a matter of months and shower them with toys they may only play with a handful of times. All of these well-intentioned gifts begin to pile up in our closets, toy chests, and storage spaces until they ultimately end up either gathering dust or, for most Americans, on the curb and then on to the dump.

I pride myself on not being materialistic and making a concerted effort to be responsible with the resources our family consumes. We recycle, compost, and even collect rainwater to use in our garden. We drive fuel-efficient vehicles and do our best to make environmentally conscious decisions. I’ve always viewed our family as being responsible stewards of the environment… until I began the confounding task of de-cluttering our home this summer.

It took me three full months to wade through the stuff our family has accumulated over 12 years: clothes, shoes, books, and toys. I am still cursing all of the damn toys. As I sorted items into piles for donation, yard sale, recycling, and (gulp) the landfill, my chest tightened and I was immersed in dread.

If my “environmentally conscious” family had managed to contribute this much waste, how could our planet possible sustain so many other families like us? Suddenly, my efforts to recycle and make “green” decisions paled in comparison to the obsession so many American families have with our stuff.

How many of us have closets stuffed with clothes? My children’s drawers are overflowing with clothes that they will outgrow within the year, only to be donated and then replaced with new clothes in an endless cycle. My husband and I donate several bags of clothes each year and then feel compelled to replace them with newer versions. Because clothing is a necessity, many of us don’t realize the environmental catastrophe we cause with our clothing obsession.

The production, shipping, and consumption of textiles creates waste and pollution at the highest levels. Clothes are piling up in our landfills and options for recycling them are few and far between. Many of us donate clothing in an effort to reduce our waste and help others in need, however, clothing donations are not always accepted and often end up in the landfills that we were trying to avoid.

Our children’s forms of entertainment also wreak environmental havoc from production to disposal. Toys, video games, electronics, you name it,  pollute our air, water, and soil all along their life cycles. Some of them are even poisoning our children as they play. One common material that pollutes and poisons our children’s lives more than any other is plastic.

I still shudder at the shear number of plastic toys I cleared out of my house this summer. I’m convinced that we could take a big step towards environmental health if McDonald’s would just stop giving out junky, stupid toys in their Happy Meals. My kids enjoy small trinkets like these for all of 5 minutes and then they end up in a container at the back of their closet. McDonald’s is not the only culprit. Cheap, disposable, and non recyclable plastic toys are everywhere from charity functions to sporting events. They. Are.The.Worst.

Not only are a large percentage of toys plastic, we buy them in a ridiculous amount of plastic packaging, and then take them home in toxic plastic bags. All of this is damaging the environment at unprecedented levels. We are destroying our planet and our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s futures in the name of providing for them. In addition, we are teaching our children that the way to show affection is to buy someone more stuff, creating a self-destructive generational cycle. It is pure insanity when we put it all into perspective.

American families are consuming record amounts of resources and contributing at enormously disproportionate levels to landfills and pollution. The numbers are both staggering and embarrassing. Not only are our actions irresponsible and ignorant, they are short-sighted and destructive to every generation after us. These are indisputable facts that are easy to wave around while standing on a soap box, fretting, and pointing fingers. What I’m most concerned about, though, is what we can do to fix the damage we’ve caused and stop the toxic cycle of burying our children in stuff.

I wish I had an easy answer, but reality rarely provides one. What I do know is that we can start by being more aware of the resources we consume, the waste we contribute, and the pollution we cause. It’s difficult to admit the damage we are causing, but it is our parental responsibility to face the truth, admit our mistakes, and speak these truths to our children.

After admitting the damage we’ve caused, it is imperative to commit to change. Small at first, like recycling (there is seriously no excuse for not recycling) These changes only work if our families are invested and understand their importance.

We have the responsibility to contact government officials and demand policies that are environmentally conscious, especially at a time when the current federal administration is taking every step it can toward dismantling environmental protections. These are easy changes that take very little effort and just a small amount of knowledge. The next, and most important change we can make, though, involves breaking our addiction to stuff.

After my epiphany and stuff-induced mini-panic attack this summer, I have vowed to substantially reduce the amount of stuff that my family consumes. The grandparents have strict orders to stop buying the kids toys (which means they will only end up buying them half as many) and I’ve talked to Mateo and Lucia about shifting our lives away from the stuff we own and toward experiences, which are so much more valuable.

I want them to be grateful for what they have and they, in turn, are open and willing to change. I’m so fortunate to have thoughtful, gracious, and caring children who want to make the world a better place and care about the impact their actions have on others. More so than most of the adults I know, they get it and I’m proud of them for that.

We adults are the challenge. While we tend to blame children’s materialism on peer pressure, research shows that children’s desire for material possessions is influenced primarily by their parent’s actions. Our children are always looking to us for cues. Materialism, wastefulness, and disregard for our destructive environmental impact is passed down from generation to generation.

This generational materialism has compounded over the past 50 years. My grandparents were the original conservationists in my life.  My grandmother would mend the small holes in my grandfather’s white undershirts and socks instead of tossing them into the trash like most people in my parents’ generation would do. Much to my annoyance as a child, they would conserve water by only filling the bathtub a few inches instead of allowing 20 minute showers like so many in my generation do. My grandfather scoured yard sales and auctions for worn out furniture that he would painstakingly refinish and breathe new life in to instead of filling his home with cheap, plywood-based furniture that is designed to only last a few years.

My grandparents would shake their heads and chastise us for our careless treatment of our material possessions. I know I rolled my eyes once or twenty times over what I saw as their old-fashioned and miserly ways. Perhaps that is how we got to this point. How many of us roll our eyes at warnings of over-consumption and waste? It’s cool to buy items bright, new, and shiny, not to make them last. More is better. Our material possessions define our status and our worth.

Parents have a grave responsibility to change this selfish trend of preference for immediate gratification over long-term preservation and sustainability of our environment.

Change is always hard. Scientific research supports the reality we all face when trying to form new habits. Even when we know we should change, it is much easier to slip back into our old routines than forge new ones. What’s even more powerful than the tendency to be complacent, though, is a parent’s love for a child. This is what motivates me to be better and to consume less. None of us can do this perfectly and yes, even after digging my family out of our self-inflicted avalanche of stuff, I have been seduced by Target’s clearance racks.

We don’t all have to drive Priuses and live on homesteads to make change. We don’t have to be perfect and we don’t have to give up ALL of our consumer luxuries to ensure a better, safer, cleaner future for our children. We DO have to reconsider how much stuff we need in our lives and prioritize the future impact of our choices over the immediate gratification of shiny new possessions. When we protect the environment, we are protecting our children and their future. I cannot think of a more fundamental parental responsibility than that.

 

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