Shannon Brescher Shea is passionate about telling stories that bring together parenting, sustainability, and social justice. Shea has been participating in some form of environmental activism since the age of ten. A mother of two young boys, she recently released the environmental parenting book Growing Sustainable Together. It has tips, tools, advice and activities for raising eco-friendly kids while nurturing compassion, resilience and community engagement. Shea spoke with Girls That Create by phone about her book and why inspiration struck to write it. Her writing can also be found on the blog We’ll Eat You Up – We Love You So.
Q&A With Shannon Brescher Shea
What inspired you to write Growing Sustainable Together?
I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was a kid. I started reading at a young age and have just always been enamored with books. I really loved Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and how he combined personal experiences, historical research, and scientific aspects.
My day job is working as a science writer for the federal government. I’d always known I wanted to write a book but had no idea what it would be about. That changed with having kids and me constantly feeling a combination of green guilt and mom guilt. After talking with other environmentally conscious moms, I came to realize green living and great parenting can actually go hand in hand. What I loved most about writing this book is that it gave me an opportunity to combine all the things I am passionate about.
When someone starts out with making changes for a more eco-friendly lifestyle, it can feel quite overwhelming. One thing I appreciated about this book is how it made a sustainable lifestyle feel attainable. Was that your intent?
Definitely. I’m all about small steps that can lead to big steps or small steps that can provide shifts in culture. I find a lot of sustainability messaging focuses on individual action, which is great and necessary. However, when thinking about an individual action, we also must think about the ripples that it causes.
There are so many individual actions we can take that it can indeed feel very overwhelming. But, if we choose to focus on the ones that cause the most significant ripples, and a lot of us do those actions, there’s going to be greater impact. For example, one person choosing to walk to the store is good. But their neighbors seeing them walk to the store and then doing it too is better. Those neighbors then getting together and petitioning the city to put in a new sidewalk that allows even more people to walk makes the biggest difference. It all started with that one person walking to the store – but didn’t stop there.
One point you make in the book is that kids need space in their environments and less things so their imaginations can roam. Since we’re big about imagination on this site, can you comment further?
Yes, there’s two studies, almost twenty years apart, that show the more toys toddlers had available to them, the less time they played with each toy. In the 2018 experiment, the researchers reported children with only four toys switched back and forth between toys about half as much as the children who had 16 toys.
As a result, the children with fewer toys explored more thoroughly what each toy could do. With fewer toys kids don’t get overwhelmed and really get into the creative side of play. One of my younger son’s favorite toys was a spatula. He loved spatulas so much that his older brother gifted him one for Christmas. He’d pretend it was a wand or a sword or a million other things.
Being Creative With What You Have
There is also a story in the book about creativity and mountain bikes. Would you share it with readers?
Sure, I had the opportunity to interview Kim John Payne of Simplicity Parenting. He told me a story from a mother in one of his workshops. Her boys had really wanted new mountain bikes, but they were something she could not afford. One day they drove past a yard sale and the kids spotted this 1970s dragster bike. Think banana seat, high handlebars, all of it. The kids desperately wanted the bike, and although she was hesitant, the mom bought it for five dollars with the seller throwing in a second bike for free.
Her boys took apart the bikes and then did massive renovations. They learned the ins and outs of how bicycles function, how to problem solve, and made connections in the community. They were able to make this big project out of these bikes and learn lessons they’d never have gotten had they received new bikes. The end result were these spectacular bikes that the boys kept in their bedrooms at night. In fact, they had learned so many skills that they opened a shop in their garage to help other kids repair their bikes. The story is a great example of how to get creative with what you have, even if it’s not what you initially wanted.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
The first is understanding that being environmentally sustainable and being a good parent are not only compatible, they also reinforce each other. Being both will help you pass along values and skills that you want your kids to have. The second is that to begin a sustainable life you need to find something that really appeals to you. Pick one thing that you enjoy because that’s whats going to become a habit. Gardening or shopping at a farmer’s market are great starter examples. Over the long-term you’ll continue to do it with your family and have fun. And it will truly make an impact and lead to another step.
Which goes back to the idea that if we each do small steps, we’ll all cause big ripples. The next step might be writing an email to a city council member or investigating how your house can use more clean energy. And if you do sustainable actions as a family, your kid will see how choices make an impact. Environmental sustainability can and should be fun. It’s something we can all integrate into everyday life. We just need to slow down and think about how we want to live our lives and how those choices match our values.
Shannon Brescher Shea
Adapted Excerpt from Growing Sustainable Together: Connecting Kindness and Sustainability of All Kinds
Just like being happy and being a good person isn’t a zero-sum game, neither is being happy and environmentally sustainable. They’re actually all tied together, although not always with a nice, neat bow.
Parents can teach most of these skills without a hint of environmental concern. But many actions that are environmentally sustainable also fulfill children’s psychological needs or teach them the skills and values needed to be a moral person. While the follow-on effects of growing your own food, walking places, saving energy, picking up garbage or attending a protest may not be obvious immediately, they add up over time. Even when it seems like our children aren’t listening to us, they’re definitely seeing what we do as a family.
In addition, many environmental issues tie directly to human rights. Polar bears are cute, but environmental issues are about so much more. Heat waves, natural disasters and flooding exacerbated by climate change most affect people who are already oppressed, including Indigenous, Black and other people of color. Air pollution disproportionately causes asthma and other breathing problems in children in poor communities. Coal plants tend to be located in low-income neighborhoods and are disproportionately located in communities of color. Purchasing items just to throw them and their packaging away reinforces abusive global supply chains and burdens people in other countries that must deal with what we’ve disposed of. Taking environmental action is in and of itself kind to other people, not just Earth.
I won’t guarantee [that this book] will lead to a particular outcome. I hate parenting books that promise results, as if children are video game characters that behave the way you want them to if you push the right buttons in the right order. The bond between parents and children (as well as other caregivers or responsible adults) is a relationship, not a formula. We’re also not the only influence on our child’s lives—friends, community members and media will all affect them. We can’t determine exactly who our child will be, nor should we.
Instead, parenting is like gardening. We can’t make plants grow, but we can provide them with the right environment to do so. While plants need soil, air, water and sun, children need a loving home, good role models and opportunities to learn these skills and values.
For the sake of ourselves and our families, we need to remember that there’s no such thing as a perfect parent or perfectly sustainable person. Everyone is human; everyone makes an impact, both good and bad. No one can do every single thing in this book to its maximum extent—even me. We all have restrictions. Some of them are individual, like disabilities, income or strict work schedules. Others are because of societal limits, like a lack of sidewalks, minimal green space or high cost of living. As I tell my kids, everyone has strengths as well as struggles. What may seem like small steps for some people, like buying more in bulk or calling a member of Congress, may be huge wins for others. In addition, those strengths and struggles may shift over time, as health, children’s ages, geographic locations and economic situations change. What seemed simple before may be hard later and vice versa. It’s all a process and a journey.
What we can do is try to be “good enough” parents and people in the world. Psychologist D. W. Winnicott proposed the idea of the “good enough mother” back in 1971 in his book Playing and Reality . It’s the idea that while a mother (of course it was a mother) starts off by adapting completely to her baby’s needs, she slowly backs off as the child becomes older and more independent. Reducing that dependency teaches the baby that the parent is a separate person. While much of Winnicott’s work draws on Freudian psychology, there’s a lot we can learn from the concept. We can’t be all things to our children, nor should we. Even if we could, it wouldn’t be good for them. If we devoted everything to them, they would never gain independence or understand anyone outside of themselves. Similarly we can’t be perfectly environmentally sustainable. It’s not physically possible and would quickly lead to burnout. Collaborating with and relying on others teaches us new perspectives and interdependence. It’s good enough to be “good enough.” We all maintain a balancing act through life. We’re all trying to do the best we can with the resources we have available to us. This book isn’t meant to set up unattainable ideals or shame anyone for their challenges.
This book is instead meant to inspire and empower you. It’s a toolkit for you to work toward the changes that you want to make in your life. As you read it, look for the things that truly appeal to your family and would make a difference. They’re usually the things that grab your heart and make you say, “I want to do that!” Embrace those and expand on them as it makes sense to you. Think about how small steps can build to become big ones. If a baby step doesn’t work for you, try something else. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
Sample Activity From The Book: Starting Seeds
Choose Your Seeds: Our family has had the most success starting tomatoes, basil and peppers. When picking seeds, consider what vegetables you want to grow and what varieties. Some varieties may be bred for your region or to be resistant to certain problems like fungus.
Figure Out Your Timing: If you plan to transplant your seedlings outside, you need to consider timing. (If you plan to grow them on a windowsill, timing is less of a concern.) The timing of seed starting depends on both your area’s last average frost date and what types of seeds you’re planting. Cold-tolerant plants like broccoli can go in early while more sensitive plants like tomatoes will die if there’s a frost.
Prepare Your Containers: Terra cotta or plastic containers from the garden store will work just fine. If you want to use recycled containers, quart-sized yogurt containers with holes punched in the bottom are perfect. Before planting, clean dirt or other contaminants out of the containers. Spraying them with vinegar, letting them dry, and rinsing them in water is a natural and effective way to sanitize them.
Prepare Your Soil: If possible, don’t use garden dirt for your seeds. Instead, buy seed starting mix, which has the right mix of nutrients and water-absorbing materials. Before planting the seeds, combine the water and seed starting mix in a large bowl. Allow your kids to mix it together to the texture of thick mud.
Plant Your Seeds: Have your kids scoop up handfuls of mud and move it into the flowerpots. Then, have each child stick their finger in and brush a little bit of mud to the side. Give each child a few seeds and direct them to put them in the tiny hole. Then have them brush a very small amount of dirt back on top of the seeds.
Sprout Your Seeds: If you have a very sunny windowsill, place your seeds there to get light. If it is warm enough during the day, put the plants outside on a deck, balcony, or patio. Once you get serious, you may want to consider purchasing a cold frame (which acts like a mini-greenhouse) or using a grow light. Have your children water the plants whenever they are dry, usually once a day. You may want to use a tiny watering can or spray bottle to prevent overwatering. Children can also gently “pet” the seedlings, which makes them stronger.
Top images and excerpt provided by North Atlantic Books.