Saturday, September 24, 2011

Parenting and Sustainable Living

Gardening, canning, harvesting.... knitting, sewing, building.... working, taking care of the land, animals, plants... keeping creativity flowing, making things and meeting needs. From such creativity arises the basic knowledge on how to live life independently from manufactured objects. Life happily disconnected from much shopping, from looking outside of one's microcosm for fixes such as new toys, new things. Creativity and work keep us able to meet our needs with what is available, what is around us, making our own world "enough".

Where do we begin sharing sustainable life with our children, and when?  What does this mean, really? Can you garden with an infant or toddler? Can you put food up, build up an addition to your house, fix a flat, pluck a chicken, muck the goat shed, turn compost pile? Yes, we all can envision something as picturesque as pumpkin harvest attended by our little ones, with appropriate lessons gently fed to them in the process: "See, this is a pumpkin! So big! It grew out of the earth". Wonderful first step, but is it really authentic and sufficient to raise a person to whom harvest and growing and nature are part of daily life?
Bill Mollison, founder of permaculture, is fond of saying that in traditional societies children know everything there is to know by age 3. This used to seem impossibly overstated. A three year old, such a little person. A good number of them still struggle with pottying! How can this be possible, that they will be fully in the know? Mollison also stressed how knowledge in such societies is not segregated by age, not protected from others - in other words, every person including youngest of children is involved in daily life, exposed to learning and knowing everything there is to know in course of normal life. Of course in traditional societies daily life is attached to land, seasons, animals, plants, elements - and for those of us striving to live sustainably this is the type of life that we are restoring around us.
Involving our little ones in this restoration of life is essential. Not as an opportunity for a lesson, but as an authentic occasion on which daily life takes place without much explanation, but with the full measure of reality. Our own journey of engaging our child in the life of the farm started when he was seven months old. Until then I was trapped in some inherited idea that babies were to be played with, using toys and special brightly colored picture books. Babies were to be kept on soft rugs, in clean living rooms, and mother was to be the main entertainer of the baby. That role was quickly becoming too taxing. I found myself planning my dish washing, and food canning, and floor sweeping, and gardening projects to be done during baby naps, leaving me without time to rest as I was working or entertaining my child non-stop! One day some gardening needs were too pressing, and I finally broke loose from the spell of "Thou shall sit on the rug and play with soft toys and make cooing sounds" - I got up, put my little son in the wheelbarrow and off we went - slow and gentle, and with much less agenda than an unattached gardener may have had, but we did what needed to be done - together.
That day I remembered Mollison's words. It was a profound moment. That is how our children learn that taking care of the land, animals, plants - and our yards, kitchens, laundry, pets etc is part of life. By participating in it. First as an observer. Then as contributor. My son learned to use full size pitch fork by age of 20 months. By learning to use I mean not spastic swinging, but a coordinated picking of goat bedding and placing it in the bucket to be taken to the garden. He owns a metal (child-sized) shovel since 15 month of age, and he can shovel a wheelbarrow full of gravel with it! At 3 year of age he knows how to dig up potatoes, how carrot leaves look like, how to put an earthworm in the earth without killing it.

He can carry an egg for an hour in his pocket and not squish it. He knows how to act around a bee hive. He knows that bees make honey, and skunks eat compost. He knows we eat chicken and goat meat (I mean the full implication of this, not just something you buy in the store that is inexplicably called chicken meat); and is familiar with the difference in taste between goat and cow's milk.  He can lead geese with a stick, round up a 130lbs milk goat and take her home, and he knows that a horse is used to round up cows.
When I hear about games and toys for developing balance in children, I think about fruit trees to climb and goats to ride. For fine motor skills we have planting peas, picking up dropped cherry tomatoes, harvesting raspberries, rescuing worms. For learning colors, shapes, and other abstract concepts - the natural world around us, bursting with everything there is to know. All that knowledge that can come to our children in a garden, forest, farm. In a home where a child is included in the life of the house as a contributor, participating in all chores that go with it. For us mornings mean animal care and caring for the needs of the house (take compost out, bring firewood in - depends on the season). Garden time or greenhouse time is next with eating, weeding, laying the dirt, playing and helping.
Afternoons are for walks, watering plants by hand, taking goats for a walk. We find time to knit, sing, play piano, sew clothing, sweep, wash dishes, do our laundry laundry by hand, cook with garden greens, make sauerkraut (this kind too) - needless to say our days are pleasantly full and we don't find much need to drive our car to find entertainment outside of our home. Home is enough.


graceonline said...

Thank you for this. I agree with every word. My children did housework, cooking and gardening with me from the get-go, riding in front-packs as infants, backpacks as older babies, and lying or sitting on the floor or ground wherever I worked.

I explained everything to them--what this is, what color it is, what it's for. They tasted, touched, examined, crunched every item I placed within their reach.

Whenever I've had the opportunity, I've done the same for the grandchildren. Our three-year-old granddaughter already enjoys cooking with me almost as much as playing with the art supplies and blocks with her Nana.

Thank you again for sharing this. Superb.

Arina said...

we just pruned an old plum clump of trees, with the little man using Japanese saw with wild abandonment with me chirping in "Dead branches only, not live!" to direct his efforts. A nice little pile of kindling taken to the house, for "Grandfather Frost" is coming. So much fun, nearly as much as cooking together!
thank you for your comment!

Galen Gallimore said...

Thank you for beginning to address this oft-ignored aspect of permaculture. This has been one of my criticisms of the 'permie' culture - what happens when young idealists with time, energy and freedom settle down and start a family? That time, energy and freedom gets redirected quickly!

Tom & Barbara of 'Good Neighbors' brit-com fame never had kids. I always wondered how their suburban permaculture lifestyle would change if they did. Of course they were trying to be self sufficient apart from extended family or supportive community. It may take a village to raise a child but how many of us know our fellow villagers well enough to trust them with raising our children?

I have tried to do the same with my boys - getting them outdoors in the garden, exposing them to a wide variety of real food, fresh from the ground, helping with the chores, etc. Hopefully as this next generation of new homesteaders, suburban or otherwise, comes of age, we'll have more good conversation about raising parenting and sustainable living.

Anonymous said...

When i started homeschooling 19 years ago that was our goal. Growing up, living life as it really happens (not vicariously through video games) talking to my kids throughout the day, teaching in every moment to prepare them for the real world. It makes me laugh when people ask me how my kids will handle the "real world"? Umm... They are living in the "real world". The real world isnt in a class roomlooking at a book with a picture of a farm. I love that your showing how at a very young age kids are teachable and love it!!! These are the lessons our kids will forever remember. Not the colorful book about farms.