A Is for Activism: Why I Took My 10-Month-Old to the People’s Climate March

"I've never seen so many strollers in my life," remarked a gray-haired People's Climate March organizer as I walked by with my 10-month-old son. Nearby, a marcher breastfed her daughter while the crowd around her chanted "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!" Elsewhere, a small child with a megaphone led the crowd in a "Save the flowers!" chant while gripping a stuffed elephant. Clearly, the largest climate march in history was a family affair.

Sunday's march in New York City, which drew an estimated 310,000 people, had a designated section for families where the adult-to-kid ratio was about 3 to 1. Though the little ones may not know who Ban Ki-Moon is, or have much to say about the United Nations Climate Summit Tuesday, this is clearly their issue. Which means, if you're a parent, it's also your issue.

"I used to think 'Whatever. In a million years, we'll be an archaeological blip in the layers of the earth and that's fine,' but now with kids, it makes the future real and it makes me care tremendously about the future," said Hilary Graham, who travelled from Massachusetts with her husband and their two children, ages 4 and 8, to march.

While some marchers were environmentalists long before any babies were on the scene, every parent I talked to said having a child made it feel more urgent. Not only did they become more politically engaged, but they also felt responsible for raising children who will be good stewards of the Earth.

You Can't Buy Clean Air

What I like to think of as the "baby industrial complex" has successfully lulled lots of parents into believing that purchasing BPA-free bottles and crib mattresses made from soybeans is enough to protect children from environmental dangers. But for many environmentalists, that kind of thinking misses the point.

"It's frustrating how people focus on organic baby food and things like that," said Marie Holmes, the breastfeeding mother, as she bounced 8-month-old Olive on her hip. "It's very minor when you step back and look at the big picture," which includes greenhouse gasses at record levels, an alarming rise in global temperatures, and little hope that the UN Climate Summit will result in real action.

Trisha Sheehan, another mom marching, realized in 2012 that buying environmentally friendly, organic products couldn't fully protect her children from toxic substances. That November, a train carrying hazardous vinyl chloride gas derailed two miles from her Paulsboro, New Jersey home and leaked its contents into the air. "You could taste it, a sweet burning taste in your throat," she said.

The spill sent more than 60 people to the hospital, and sickened Sheehan and her family. "I was vomiting and delirious," she said, while her then 6-year-old son had headaches. Her two-year-old didn't seem affected at first, but now has bloody noses that soak his shirts—possibly a lingering effect from exposure to the carcinogenic chemical, which is used to make some plastics.

"I couldn't go to the store and buy clean air and bring it home for them," Sheehan said. "I realized it's bigger than me and I needed to stand up against it." While she has an MBA in marketing and expected to work in the business world, Sheehan recently became a professional activist, working as the New Jersey field manager for Moms Clean Air Force, a national organization that lobbies for tougher regulations on the oil and gas industry, among other things. (The organization also promotes "nap activism" i.e. asking parents to spend their children's nap time emailing the EPA and their senators.)

Don't Scare the Children

Sheehan, like all the parents I spoke to who were marching, is consciously raising her children to care about the planet. As a new parent myself, I wanted to know how one raises little environmentalists without scaring the beejeezus out of them. In my circles, a conversation about climate change inevitably leads to nightmare-inducing discussions of famine, drought, fatal storms, and rising tides. The marchers gave me three good pieces of advice: Focus on hope, encourage a love of nature and lead by example.

"I do not give them the facts about the ice caps melting and the polar bears disappearing," said Graham, the Massachusetts mom of two. "To hear all of those scary facts layers our relationship with the natural world with guilt and shame like we've destroyed something or done something bad," she said. Graham and her husband want their children to have a relationship with nature that's not contaminated, so their main strategy is to "have them fall in love with the natural world." They sent both children to nature preschools on a working farm, where the children spent most of the day outdoors. "My kids are always happy when they're outside and doing something in the natural world. They're absorbed."

Similarly, Sheehan said, "It's never doomsday in our house." She suggests parents keep it positive and speak in simple terms. "My 4-year-old thinks I go around picking up trash; that's his idea of cleaning up the planet," she said, laughing. Conversations should focus on what you can do, she added, whether it is actually picking up trash, joining a group, attending a march, or writing letters to your elected representatives.

Barent Roth, who was pushing his toddler in a stroller, makes a point of reading his daughter books like Little Helpers, which is about children doing Earth-friendly things like planting trees, and A Is for Activist which is described as "Howard Zinn for 2-year-olds." "She's already been to four protests," he said proudly, "and she can do the chants."

There were also plenty of parents trying to lead by example. "My parenting approach is not to make my kids care about it, but to see what we're doing and hopefully it will rub off," said Viki Bok, who has two teen boys. The Massachusetts mom was committed to making the trek to the march, but because she was trying to juggle everyone's shifting schedules—work, her son's sports events, ill relatives to visit, the start of school to acclimate to, volunteer commitments—she ended up changing her train ticket five times. Bok made it happen, she says, "because it's important that our kids see us making every effort." When her 14-year-old son asked if he could march with her, she was thrilled.

Sometimes the lead-by-example technique goes the other direction. Leann Canty, another member of Mothers Out Front at the march, said her daughter joined the school recycling club when she was 10, developed an interest in the environment and eventually started doing presentations to other students about the dangers of fracking. "I thought, if she can do something like that, then I can, too."

Hope for the Future

Though the march has been criticized as a street fair that won't solve any problems, the day felt like a family gathering of people who were already part of the solution.

Roth, the dad with the 2-year-old, teaches a sustainable systems class at Parsons, the New School for Design. Every freshman, whether they are studying fashion, photography, or industrial design, is required to take it and learn about "the need to design products, systems, and services that are more socially, environmentally and economically resilient."

Graham, the nature-loving mom from Massachusetts, is part of a group called Mothers Out Front, which has a meeting on September 22 with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick pressuring him to commit to no new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state.

Families came out to pressure international leaders to take action on climate change, but the marching parents also engaged the next generation to continue that pressure. Last week, Sheehan, the New Jersey mom who was sickened by hazardous gas, took her son, Logan, to a press conference that both promoted the march and reported on the most carbon polluting power plants in the state. The next day, Logan wrote an essay for school about how dirty fossil fuels cause air pollution and urged his classmates to attend the People's Climate March.  

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