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4 Sustainability Lessons My Mom Taught Me, and 4 Things I’m Teaching My Kids

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Here are four sustainability lessons I learned from the most important teacher of all.

I’ve gotten a lot of things from my mom: my love for trolling antique markets for treasures, an affinity for navy-blue clothing, and the best-ever recipe for caramel spice cake. But even at a time when protecting the environment wasn’t at the forefront of everyone’s mind, my mom taught me many habits and lessons about sustainability that still stick with me today. And her teachings have, in turn, made me think more carefully about the lessons I want to teach my own children.

What I learned from my mom:

  1. Plant a garden. My mom has always been an avid gardener. We dabbled in vegetables when I was a kid, but she’s more interested in flower gardens and trees, where she creates a haven for hummingbirds and bees. Her lifelong interest is finally beginning to rub off on me, though I’m leaning more towards indoor plants.
  2. Don’t litter. When I see someone throw a wrapper out the window of their car, or I spy empty bottles by the side of the road, I’m infuriated. And I’m sure I owe my strong reaction to my mom, who was scrupulous about ensuring trash went to the right place.
  3. Compost. To keep her aforementioned gardens in peak condition, my mom had a prolific compost pile. Yard waste, food scraps, and manure from her horses all were converted into nutrient-rich materials for her gardens.
  4. Appreciate nature. Most of all, my parents made sure we appreciated undeveloped countryside, untouched state parks, and pristine beaches. Our family vacations were typically to natural wonders rather than cities, and they taught me to appreciate the natural beauty of this country and protect it.


What I’m teaching my children:

  1. Conserve gas by biking or walking. We are lucky to live only a couple of blocks from my daughter’s school, so we walk or bike there as often as we can. When my daughter complains about the walk, I try to explain how walking helps protect the earth.
  2. Grow your own food. (And what you don’t grow, buy responsibly). For the past two years, we’ve had a small vegetable garden, in the hopes that we can help our kids understand where food comes from, how it grows, and when it’s in season. We also frequent our farmer’s market for locally grown goods, and I try to explain to my kids that even if they want to buy watermelon or peaches in January, it’s better to wait until they’re in season.
  3. Reuse things. My girls are always seeing me reuse and repurpose stuff. Egg cartons become palettes for paint, shoeboxes corral toys and collections, old T-shirts are cut up for rags. My younger wears my eldest’s outgrown clothing, and then they’re passed on to younger friends or donated to a charity thrift shop. Perhaps my compulsion for repurposing has turned them into packrats, but I do enjoy seeing them get creative with a cardboard box.
  4. Avoid disposables. I pack my daughter’s school lunch just about every day, and I’ve worked hard to amass a collection of reusable containers so that there’s little waste in her lunchbox. We tote snacks in plastic containers too, take sport water bottles to baseball practice and movie theaters rather than buying bottled water, and use cloth napkins instead of paper. Hopefully my kids will grow up to be similarly judicious about using disposables.

What are some sustainability lessons that your mom taught you, or that you’re teaching your kids?

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan
I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same. more
  • Twyila S. 6 months ago
    Growing up, I was taught to TAKE CARE of ALL the things I had!!! Clothes, Shoes, Toys, Books & when I had finished with it, Momma taught me to pack it away! If we didn’t know of anyone that needed/wanted our clothes, we packed them up to use later for Quilt Tops, Cover for pets, Rags for Cleaning or anything else that came along later!! Yes, it might make you a “pack rat” to others, but, when you are able to ALREADY HAVE an item needed later, you WILL BE GLAD YOU SAVED IT!!! Some people throw things AWAY Without EVEN THINKING OR CARING IF it is needed/wanted by themselves later or someone else at the time they are done with it!!!:-0
    People are SO WASTEFUL!! But they STILL Wonder WHY they live paycheck to paycheck!!?!?!?!?
  • Jennifer s. 3 years ago
    For my kids.if it doesnt fit give it mom.i save the outgrown clothes to pass it down
  • Lucy S. 5 years ago
    Plant kitchen garden - check.
    Compost kitchen green waste for garden - check.
    Use rags vs paper towels - check.
    Use t-shirt strips to tie up tomato plants - check.
  • Shannon L. 5 years ago
    If only we could take our own drinks into the movie theater! That isn't allowed here.
  • Debra B. 5 years ago
    My daughter and I joined a mother daughter philanthropy group for her junior and senior year of high school. She became the spokesperson for SOLVE for 2 years for our chapter! We cleaned up rivers, dug out evasive plants in forests, planted new trees, cleaned up wetlands ,etc. As a family we taught both our kids from a young age to leave an area better than you found it, and would practice that camping, hiking, and walks around the neighborhood. We buy local food, support our farmers markets, grow gardens, preserve food, make freezer jams and homemade pesto. We volunteer at the Oregon Food Bank. We reuse items, repurpose and donate to charities, schools, women's shelters, etc. When you show and do with your children, they will continue on. Giving to others and helping the environment is a win win for everyone. It makes you and others feel good. If you can only give a little time, you will get a lot back!
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