I’ve gathered and produced some resources on parenting for child development and parenting for environmental sustainability and social justice (which I think is actually a vital aspect of child development).
Parenting for child development
Being very intentional about developmental outcomes is probably the best way to help children be all they can be, support positive relationships with them, and enjoy parenting.
A great general framework for parenting is the authoritative parenting style, which emphasizes empathy, communicating reasons for limits, and maintaining high standards.
I really liked the book It’s OK Not to Share. If you don’t agree, please get off your device, right now. I want to use it. I don’t agree with every one of the book’s maverick perspectives, but most are well-reasoned and overall they are a great antidote to our tendency to simply use common, default parenting practices.
Parenting Science is a really useful blog.
There is strong research suggesting that young children are more likely to play in more sophisticated ways if they have fewer toys. This supports important developmental practices and outcomes, such as imaginative and pretend play, self-expression, physical skills like fine motor coordination, and problem-solving. It probably also supports gratitude. See, for example, New Study Underscores Why Fewer Toys Is the Better Option.
RIE parenting just might be the most important parenting resource. See the RIE parenting section.
RIE (pronounced “rye”) stands for “Resources for Infant Educarers,” an unfortunately murky name for a child development philosophy. It focuses on children 0-2 years old, but most RIE parents apply its principles with kids of every age.
Coalesced and popularized by Magda Gerber, the main idea of RIE is that we best support children’s development by more fully recognizing their capabilities and allowing children more space to use them. In practice, this means a lot more waiting, observing, and understanding our kids, and more empathetic and less invasive responses to them. Gerber describes this as the essence of giving our children respect.
Upon deeper learning and practice, RIE can become a transformative mode of supporting and relating to children. RIE principles visibly foster confidence, skills, self-direction, executive functions (like self-monitoring and emotional regulation), resilience, and respect for self and others. They can also make parenting a lot easier and enjoyable!
Magda Gerber’s book Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities—From the Very Start is a great introduction to RIE, even if your child is passed the two-and-younger milestones covered.
Janet Lansbury has a good brief overview of RIE: RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action).
The Toasted RIE Facebook group is a good place for discussion about RIE parenting.
My RIE playgroup has a member handbook. Feel free to use it as a template if you are creating your own group.
I wrote RIE Principles for Parenting in Nature, originally published by Free Forest School.
Below is the only publicly accessible longer-format interview with Magda Gerber that I know of. Note that some of the video clips added to the interview are not actually examples of RIE!
Kids need emotional intelligence, a buzzword which just means emotional skills. Such skills are central to things like feeling compassion, getting along with others, strong relationships, good decisions, learning, reducing anxiety, good health, overcoming life challenges, achieving goals, and being happy. In other words, emotional intelligence is important for most everything most parents want for their children.
There is a growing body of research supporting this view. For example, one recent study suggests that 55% of one’s life balance and health, effectiveness in getting results, life achievements and satisfaction, and network and community connection stems from emotional intelligence. Of course we don’t really need data to know that emotional chops are pivotal for a species that is inherently social and deeply temperamental. We only have to read the news—or look honestly at the costs of our own reactive behavior.
I wrote a book called How We Feel to use with children to foster their emotional intelligence. A draft is available for personal use (no reproduction, whole or in part, is permitted). I would love any feedback that may improve the work, so please contact me.
Time in nature is wildly beneficial for children. Richard Louv makes a good case for this in his book Last Child in the Woods.
But your kid probably won’t get many nature experiences if you don’t. It’s another case of the importance of modeling and walking the talk. So go hiking and, even better, backpacking.
Meetup has loads of free hiking and backpacking groups, where experienced hike leaders take care of trip details and offer other support.
Another great resource, for children birth to six, is Free Forest School, which organizes child-led, unstructured play in nature. It has chapters around the U.S. and beyond.
I wrote RIE Principles for Parenting in Nature for Free Forest School.
I am completing a photography project called “Forest school,” about my son’s experiences in nature. There are some proofs that you can look at using the password skipsaysyes.
We know sugar consumption by kids, especially young children, is a really important issue. But our approach to it is usually something like “not too much.” Sugar is consequential enough—perhaps more so than you think—to have a specific policy you can follow.
I wrote Got a sugar policy? after figuring out my own.
I recommend Karen Le Billon’s entertaining French Kids Eat Everything. She offers ten useful rules and makes it easy to see how eating habits are cultural. And while you probably won’t single-handedly transform food culture nationally, you can work on creating a very consistent food culture within your own home, and policies for coping with the seductive, thrill-not-health-based world of food outside it.
My personal list of principles for fostering good eating includes:
- Serving food on a fairly regular schedule, including snack(s), so kids are ready to eat at food time.
- No off-schedule eating except tastes. It’s good to feel hungry and look forward to meals.
- Include kids in the food enterprise: shopping, gardening, and planning and making meals.
- What’s served is what’s available to eat. This way dishes on the table are encountered in their own right, without distracting competition with food inside kids’ heads.
- Dishes are served in courses, with less readily-accepted foods served earlier (when children are hungrier). This similarly allows foods to stand on their own terms, rather than being diminished by or rejected because of the presence of something more appealing.
- Children always get to decide if they will eat something and how much. But:
- (If the food or dish is already part of a child’s dietary repertoire) “I’ll bring you more food if you are still hungry after you finish that.”
- (If the food or dish is not-yet-adopted) “I really want you to try that before I bring you more food.”
- Include not-yet-adopted foods many times. It takes time to get used to new textures, flavors, colors, etc.
- “It’s OK to say you don’t like a food (but I don’t want you to say the food is bad or act unappreciative).”
- “We sit calmly at the table (not playing), so that everyone can enjoy their meal.” Consistently remove children from the table if they don’t comply with behavioral limits.
- Don’t use food just as a behavioral tool (“I’ll give you food/privilege/object X if you eat or do Y”).
- Serve good food. It’s hard to get with the program if you aren’t being served quality eats.
- Foster awareness about and appreciation for food. (“We’re so lucky to have such great food!”)
- Serve food you want kids to eat. Don’t serve mac and cheese if you don’t want them to crave mac and cheese.
- Unless there is a growth or other medical issue, don’t be afraid that children won’t get enough to eat if you don’t let them have their way. Children have plenty of reserves and being hungry reduces fuss.
- Encourage food combining. (“Hey, I wonder if cashew and pickle is a good combo?!) It’s fun, inspires trying new foods, and acclimates children to different tastes and textures.
Here’s a great idea related to serving less readily-accepted foods earlier in the meal (when children are hungrier): One mom instituted a veggie happy hour, with cut-up vegetables and a dip set out for snacking while dinner is being made. If it makes kids eat less dinner, at least it was displaced by healthy eating.
Alfie Kohn’s article The Case Against Competition is very worth reading. I should mention that Kohn is very smart, and makes a living by developing positions opposite to conventional thinking. But, in my opinion, he sometimes stretches the evidence to support his contrarianism.
Organized competitive sports are a powerful socializing experience, but generally I think more harmful than beneficial. My stepson plays baseball (his parents make the call on that one). In one game, a 7 or 8 year old boy got hit by a pitch and cried. His mother yelled, “You’re tough. Shake it off.”
That wan’t an isolated incident. A 2017 survey by the National Association of Sports Officials found that about 40% of officials said parents are the biggest source of unsportsmanlike behavior. Almost another 30% named coaches. That suggests that organized sports create an environment in which adults are consistently modeling loss of perspective and bad behavior. (The situation is probably even worse than those numbers indicate, because the survey includes college and professional team coaches, who have less exposure to parent behavior at games.)
Some Lessons Taught by Informal Sports, Not by Formal Sports is a blog post that focuses on benefits of letting kids do sports on their own. I did organized sports a few times in school, but mostly informal ones in ‘hood with other kids looking for something to do. I remember experiencing just about everything the author describes.
Parenting for environmental sustainability and social justice
A human being can’t really be fully developed without ample consciousness and care about, and a positive relationship to, the unsustainable and unjust world we live in.
Engaging children—in age-appropriate ways—in positive social change activities fosters many developmental benefits! These include fostering:
- Positive values like fairness, integrity, compassion, inclusion, diversity, and environmental stewardship.
- Knowledge about the world.
- Development of points of view.
- Resilience against negative impacts of news, entertainment, and social media; peers; schooling; and other socializing influences.
- A sense of purpose.
- Acceptance of how things are and a sense of agency to change them.
- Self-esteem and confidence.
- Social connection.
- Appreciation for what one has.
- A wide range of important capacities, such as executive function, communications, collaborative decision-making, critical thinking, self-directed learning, and using computers as tools.
There are many ways to get children involved in making a better world. Here are some ideas, all of course to be used in age-appropriate ways and doses.
Be mindful not to volunteer for organizations in a way where you are really just taking something (a good experience for your child). Change organizations have missions. Working with volunteers takes resources and is usually part of their efforts to build more meaningful, longer-term involvement. Avoid showing up just at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
- Model action by being involved yourself. Make participating in collective action part of your family culture.
- Use screen time for movies, videos, and documentaries about activist kids and people taking action. See Doing Good Together’s complete resource collection.
- Focus on progressive books for reading activities. See Doing Good Together’s complete resource collection.
- Listen to and give kids progressive music.
- Sing progressive songs together.
- Encourage social change-related projects for school assignments.
- Talk about the news and social and environmental problems with your kids. See the section on talking with children about the world.
- Teach computer skills by researching or taking action on an issue.
- Have explicit family values, like justice, sustainability, diversity, and especially taking action in the world.
- Seek out progressive camps. See the section on Youth activism camps.
- Connect kids with youth activist groups. See the section on Youth activism organizations.
- Bring children to protests.
- Sell lemonade (not too sweet, please) or have a yard sale to raise money for a cause.
- Play empathy-reinforcing games, like where you look for a stranger in a situation and try to guess what they are feeling and why.
- Solicit opinions or solution ideas about a local situation and help your child write a letter to a newspaper about it.
- Work together to make a poster expressing a point of view and put it in a window.
- Discuss possible lifestyle changes, select one, and work together to implement it. Consider really meaningful ones, as discussed in An Open Letter To Parents About Protecting Your Children From Climate Change.
- Spend time with like-minded families and kids.
- Bring children to neighborhood and natural area clean-up events.
- Go to a tree-planting event.
- Volunteer with an animal rescue or shelter organization.
- Volunteer with a hunger or housing related organization.
- Explore and/or get involved in youth-specific issues, like girls education, gun violence, consent, lowering the voting age, and sex trafficking.
- Follow and support the 21 youth suing the U.S. government over climate change (Juliana v. United States of America).
- Have history time at home using alternative materials, such as those of the Zinn Education Project.
- Organize a helping project with your kids. See for example: How this family helps the homeless: Kids doing good.
- Enroll children in schools with at least some focus on social justice and environmental action.
- Bring children to visit isolated older adults.
- Take a family volunteering trip. MeToWe.org provides some opportunities.
- Send kids on a volunteering trip. MeToWe.org provides some opportunities.
There are so many young people working for good. Their stories show what is possible for young people and how action in the world helps them be who they can be.
Elias starts his journey based on concern for animals.
Activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez at age 6. He probably had some help putting this first speech together, but just about every word is completely spot on. Wow.
Naomi Wadler is 11 and not a tool of some nameless adult.
Marley Dias didn’t see people like her in books that people like her got to read.
Three girls find empowerment and growth taking climate change action in their town.
A vegan diet is one that excludes animals and foods from animals (like dairy products). A whole-food, plant-based diet excludes foods originating from animals, but also emphasizes eating foods in their whole form (e.g., apples, not apple juice). I think the latter is the best kind of plant-based diet.
Let’s get this out of the way: Proper vegan diets are, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, healthful, nutritionally adequate, appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, and associated with reduced risk of health problems such as ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have taken similar positions. Whole-food, plant-based diets are even healthier.
Raising children on such diets also offers many potential benefits from the standpoint of parenting for environmental and social justice. It can support:
- Consciousness about ecological harm, the politics of food and medicine, and animal welfare.
- Development of empathy, a moral framework, and life principles.
- The ability to be different based on independent thinking and overcoming fear of judgment and rejection by peers and others.
- A sense of personal integrity and empowerment.
- An understanding that the personal is political, and that personal/lifestyle efforts plus working with others is the most powerful way to support positive change.
Children who eat plant-based diets are automatically participating in a very real way in an important, vibrant, and growing social movement for animal rights and the environment—quite possibly the most important one from the standpoint of the climate and wildlife extinction catastrophes. They will likely get a lot out of knowing that they are already making a difference and part of large group of people doing the same. Becoming an active member of a plant-diet organization and connecting with other members will probably deepen that experience.
Raising children on a plant-based diet also is really the best way to allow them free choice about what they eat. Of course, no matter what food regime a child grows up with, they are being acculturated and (explicitly or implicitly) indoctrinated. But there are far fewer barriers to seeing things a new way as a young adult and adding animal foods than to removing them when they’ve been a part of one’s lifestyle and cultural experience for one’s whole life.
For more about veganism generally, check out The Vegan Society.
Talking with children about dark things is hard. We surely don’t want to harm them. We do, however, have a responsibility to help them understand, be comfortable with, care about, and develop positive ways of engaging a world that is in fact fraught with deep darkness.
It is a basic part of children’s nature to want to know the world. From the moment we are born we are driven to discover how things are through exploration and play, which are not for the sake of fun but to know. Knowing helps us be in the world. Children are reality takers and are actually extremely good at it.
Too often, sheltering children in an effort to protect them simply leaves the job of presenting the darkness to others. They learn about the world from every agent of socialization—parents, peers, schools, media, etc.—and where you stay mum, most other influencers do not. If we do not actively shepherd their awareness, mainstream culture will. They will, sooner than you probably think, learn that things are pretty awful on our planet. And likely they will also get the message that it’s something unfortunate but mostly to be ignored, an uncomfortable topic. They won’t likely understand why things are the way they are. They won’t likely develop much sense of being able to do anything about it, let alone the personal resources to find ways to really support a better world while living happy, fulfilling lives.
Rather than shelter, the key is to shepherd.
Start young. The longer you wait to introduce dark elements, the bigger the falsehood that must eventually be corrected, and the bigger the danger when the images shatter. True, older children have some useful skills that younger children don’t. But at best it’s weird (and at worse a major mind fuck) when the truth finally comes out. Alternatively, there really isn’t anything onerous or antagonistic to childhood joy in stating simple truths to very young children, as long as they are age-appropriate. They will simply take it in and be even less likely to be jarred by the next one.
Keep it age-appropriate. Almost any topic can be rendered age-appropriate. You can absolutely tell a toddler: “We are so lucky to have a nice home. Some people don’t even have a home.”
Make sure children feel safe. “It’s very unlikely that we would lose our home. And even if we did, we would live with people who love us until we got another one.”
Make sure that children know that bad things can be made better. “Thankfully many people are working hard so that everyone has a home.”
Help them understand why. Otherwise they will be confused. “Some people don’t have homes because other people have too many.” Or for a more advanced child: “Some people don’t have homes because we live in a country that is set up in a way that encourages people to want more and more wealth, power, and status for themselves, with little active concern for how other people are doing.”
Dialogue and pay attention. Be sure to answer all questions and monitor how children are handling what you share.
Following these practices, you’ll likely rarely find yourself at a loss about how to talk to children about the world.
How Much Should I Talk to My Kid about Political Issues? is an interesting read about being open and not underestimating your child.
An open letter to those who haven’t faced climate change
It is very likely that the climate crisis is profoundly worse than you think.Read the letter
Spitzer, S. A systemic approach to occupational and environmental health. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. 2005; 11: 444-54.
Spitzer, S. Hiking For Photographers. The Luminous Landscape. July 2014.
Schafer, K., Reeves, M., Spitzer, S., and Kegley, S. Chemical Trespass: Pesticides in Our Bodies and Corporate Accountability. Pesticide Action Network. May 2004.
Spitzer, S. Effectively Using Hiking Poles: The Gas-Brake-Coast Method. BackpackingLight. July 2011. (This is now behind a paywall. You can view this PDF version and the first and second videos.)
Spitzer, S. RIE Principles for Parenting in Nature. Free Forest School Blog. January 2018.