Kidhuggers. It’s a gag-me kind of word, too precious to be catchy. And it certainly won’t ever replace the slur-cum-badge-of-honor for enviros — treehuggers. But maybe it should.

Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh

Illustration: Keri Rosebraugh

The green movement has never been about people with an overfondness for bark and flora. Instead, it’s based on a natural protectiveness, an urge to defend all the vulnerable and vital things on earth. Water, air, wildlife, wilderness — and, OK, trees — fall into that category. But in the most profound way possible, so do children. A newborn, when you put it this way, is the ultimate pristine landscape. Having one can give parents the environmental epiphany — and the anxiety attack — of their lives.

I know the syndrome. As a green-leaning San Francisco dweller, I was already well aware of environmental hazards before I got pregnant: pesticides, smog, mercury in the seafood, toxins in the tap water. The risks were obviously omnipresent, but they still seemed a bit abstract. All that changed in the labor room.

Beyond my daughter’s downy red hair — and the fact that it was inexplicably shaped in a mohawk — what I saw when she was born was an astonishingly pure template: skin that until that moment had never been touched by even the air; eyes that hadn’t seen light; a mouth that had never taken nourishment. She was impossibly untouched, and my responsibility. My instant challenge — one that faces millions of parents — was how to preserve her state of grace.

But how could I? There was pollution in the air, asbestos in the floor tiles, lead in the paint, hormones in milk, and high-fructose corn syrup in nearly everything. There were transfats, additives, preservatives, and carcinogenic fire retardants; there were questionable tooth sealants, tainted burgers, disintegrating foams, and toxic sippy cups. The more I knew, the worse the quandary became. Was there no baby bottle or food or toy or piece of furniture or playground or building that was safe? As my daughter grew up, was there a way to engage her in eco-issues without scaring her to death? Could I keep her healthy during her preteen and teen years — or at least prevent her from mainlining sodas and snorfing acrylamide-and-transfat-laden French fries?

What was a kidhugger to do?

In a special series over the next two weeks, Grist will offer simple, straightforward answers to those questions for parents, pre-parents, and non-parents alike. The goal is not to preach or point fingers: there’s enough of that going around these days to make an adult want to lie down and weep. Instead, we want to inspire you to stand up, make some guilt-free green choices, and live happily, which is the best thing for children in any event. Moderation is the only realistic goal; orthodoxy and kids don’t mix. In fact, if you’re anything like me, your beloved little one will sooner or later take at least one of your most exalted principles and reduce it to pablum.

Eleven years ago I vowed, for example, to raise a child who (don’t laugh) never, ever ate fast foods or sweets. Yesterday alone my daughter had fries at her school cafeteria and inhaled four Oreo cookies before her organic chicken and broccoli dinner, topped off by chocolate cake for dessert. I swore I’d keep her away from television, too: I know down to my hemoglobin that too much “screen time” kills creativity, fosters sluggishness, and creates premature eye-rolling and other Bratz-like behavior. But when I was an exhausted single mom raising a rambunctious toddler and working full-time, I started using Barney as a babysitter. And my kid loves TV to this day.

She and I also do lots of positive things, from riding bikes and recycling to shopping at the farmers’ market, conserving water and energy, and simply caring about the world. Hairshirts aren’t necessary for green parenting, it turns out; perfection and martyrdom aren’t either. All that’s required is a willingness to take practical steps that won’t cause headaches or cost a bundle. In fact, the eco-actions we take to safeguard our children are likely to be a blast, filled with organic feasting, good health, adventure, and gusto.

By standing up, it turns out, we can nurture a healthy planet and healthy children, too. One deserves the other; neither can live without the other. One parent and one kid at a time, there’s no telling how green the future can be.