Pint-Size Eco-Police, Making Parents Proud and Sometimes Crazy

Sometimes, Jennifer Ross feels she cannot make a move at home without inviting the scorn of her daughters, 10-year-old Grace and 7-year-old Eliza. The Acura MDX she drives? A flagrant polluter. The bath at night to help her relax? A wasteful indulgence. The reusable shopping bags she forgot, again? Tsk, tsk.

“I have very, very environmentally conscious children — more so than me, I’m embarrassed to say,” said Ms. Ross, a social worker in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. “They’re on my case about getting a hybrid car. They want me to replace all the light bulbs in the house with energy-saving bulbs.”

Ms. Ross’s children are part of what experts say is a growing army of “eco-kids” — steeped in environmentalism at school, in houses of worship, through scouting and even via popular culture — who try to hold their parents accountable at home. Amid their pride in their children’s zeal for all things green, the grown-ups sometimes end up feeling like scofflaws under the watchful eye of the pint-size eco-police, whose demands grow ever greater, and more expensive.

They pore over garbage bins in search of errant recyclables. They lobby for solar panels. And, in a generational about-face, they turn off the lights after their parents leave empty rooms.

“Kids have really turned into the little conscience sitting in the back seat,” said Julia Bovey, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group that recently worked with Nickelodeon on a series of public service announcements and other programming called “Big Green Help.”

“One of the fascinating things about children is that they don’t separate what you are doing from what you should be doing,” Ms. Bovey said. “Here’s this information about how we can help the environment, and kids are not able to rationalize it away the way that adults do.”

In Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, Jan Schmidt, a stay-at-home mother, and Mark Goetz, a professor of furniture design, have watched, amazed, as their 4-year-old son chastises them for letting the water run while they brush their teeth. “He’ll come over and turn it off and say, ‘Every day is Earth Day,’ ” Ms. Schmidt said. “He learned it at school.”

Their older child, 12-year-old Elly, extols the clothesline in her bedroom the way other girls her age might show off a new beanbag chair. An aspiring marine biologist, Elly raised $250 last year to protect coral reefs by selling handmade earrings at school. And she was a big factor in the family’s decision to hang on to their current car instead of buying a bigger one.

“With Elly, there’s sort of an unspoken thing about not buying an S.U.V.,” Ms. Schmidt said.

Elly elaborated: “I wouldn’t be happy if they bought an S.U.V. because they’re not fuel efficient, and they pollute more than other cars.”

They learn this stuff everywhere. In the summer, the Pixar film “Wall-E” served up an ecological parable of a planet so punished that it had to be abandoned. The Girl Scouts recently added patches including “Environmental Health,” “Get With the Land,” “Earth Pact” and “Water Drop.” Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company, has teamed up with the American Museum of Natural History to create Web sites and magazines about climate change and other environmental issues.

A Scholastic message board where children share eco-friendly tips, called Save the Planet, has had three million page views in the past year.

And school districts across the country are adding lessons on the environment to their curriculums in many subject areas, as well as enforcing idle-free zones in school driveways, switching to plant-based cleaners, doing away with pesticides and, in some places, installing solar panels.

In the Byram Hills School District in Armonk, N.Y., middle-school teachers plan to roll out new material related to the environment starting in January.

“We’re trying to integrate it into anything where it naturally fits,” said Jackie Taylor, the district’s superintendent. “It might be in a math lesson. How much water are you really using? How can you tell? Teachers look for avenues in almost everything they teach.”

Katie Ginsberg, co-founder and executive director of the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit group in Chappaqua, N.Y., has trained hundreds of teachers from Massachusetts to New Jersey in issues of sustainability and environmental science. More than 1,500 students attended the group’s annual expo, Students for a Sustainable Future, at Pace University this spring.

“In 2002, the environmental education children were getting was very isolated,” Ms. Ginsberg said. “It was emphasized mainly on Earth Day and an occasional field trip to a nature center. We started looking for different paradigms of environmental education around the world.”

But the green initiatives in schools have not been universally embraced. Some critics say such lessons are a distraction as districts struggle to meet minimum standards on math and reading tests. Others say turning children into stewards of the environment is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

And even parents who are impressed by their children’s commitment to remake the world can also sometimes feel, well, badgered. Paul Wyckoff, a writer in Hunterdon County, N.J., said his 15-year-old son, Will, yells at him for “leaving the car idling for a few seconds in the driveway.” He has even taken to turning off nightlights to save energy.

“My philosophy is get the big stuff,” Mr. Wyckoff said. “I think he takes it too far. But I’m proud of him. I think he’ll moderate with age.”

Given that children often lack a sense of social boundaries, things can get sticky when their haranguing extends beyond the home. Liz DiVittorio, of Raleigh, N.C., a mother of three, recalled walking with her 10-year-old son, Michael, this summer after a rainstorm and seeing a neighbor running his sprinkler.

“My son looked at him and said, ‘Why are you watering your lawn? It just rained,’ ” said Ms. DiVittorio, who works for a software company. “I sat there and cringed.”

For middle schoolers, money is fairly abstract — and therefore no object. Sarah Hodder and Dr. Peter Allen of Chappaqua have three boys, the oldest of whom, Charles, 10, is itching to go solar.

“Any time we pass a house with solar panels, he says, ‘Why can’t we do that?’ ” said Ms. Hodder, co-chairwoman of the Roaring Brook Elementary School Environmental Committee. “I always say, ‘Talk to Daddy.’ A lot of these steps are cost-prohibitive, although ultimately in the long run they’re good for the environment and the wallet.”

Ms. Hodder said that in the short term, she and her husband are making more modest changes, with the children’s support, like turning down the heat, composting, walking to school and “not buying so much stuff.” But as enthusiastic as Ms. Hodder is about protecting the environment, the children seize on her lapses, as when Peapod delivers the groceries in plastic bags.

“They’ll say, ‘Mom, I thought we weren’t supposed to use plastic bags,’ ” she said.

Douglas and Alison Distefano, of Rumson, N.J., who have two children, dubbed their fifth grader, Olivia, “the recycling militant general.”

“For us, Earth Day is a reason to go outside,” said Mr. Distefano, an executive with Soltage, a solar energy company. “But for them it’s a religious holiday.”

Ann Tedesco, a psychologist in Armonk, said her daughter Celeste, 9, “is always policing the regular garbage bins to make sure we’re not throwing paper away in there,” adding: “She particularly enjoys catching her older sister.”

Dr. Tedesco’s husband, Rick Alimonti, a lawyer, recalled how their son, Lucas, 7, kept reminding him to turn off the engine while waiting outside school.

“I was only idling for a minute, and I explained that it uses more gas and pollutes the atmosphere more to turn the engine off and back on again,” he said. “I looked it up afterward to make sure I wasn’t exaggerating.”

He was in the clear: Several blogs asserted that idling for a minute or less is preferable to shutting off and restarting the engine. (nytimes, 10.08.2008, Lisa W. Foderaro)