It’s painful for you both, but still better than a day inside with SpongeBob.
Photo: Tom Twigg

When the last school bell rings and summer gets into full swing, we modern parents simply can’t do as the previous generation did: turn our kids loose onto the chemically manicured neighborhood lawns for unsupervised games of kick-the-can, calling them inside only for the occasional application of Solarcaine or snack of tuna melts and Kool-Aid. These days, thanks to growing awareness of the dangers of everything from pesticides to high-fructose corn syrup, parents of my ilk (anxious to the point of bruxism) face a new summer challenge. We have to figure out how to keep the kids not only entertained, but eco-entertained: invigorated in both body and mind in a way that’s healthful and educational for the child and tender to the earth.

How can you do this without grinding your teeth into nubs? Fear not, fellow travelers, I have a few suggestions that might keep both the kids and the planet happy — and the TMJ at bay.

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1. Modern-parent dilemma: Skin cancer or Summer o’ Netflix?
Thum, thum, thum … here comes the helicopter parent, hovering over his or her child, ready to swoop down at the slightest sign of danger. For copterish parents like me, summer’s safety-first rituals now rival the winter bundle-up routine: the ghoulish coat of zinc oxide, the UV-blocking hat and glasses, the spritz of DEET-free sunblock and the warning about what to do if you see a mountain lion (wave your arms and make yourself appear larger). All this preparation makes an already tired parent want to say the hell with it and hand the kids the SpongeBob DVD series and the TV clicker.

Eco-entertainment solution: Turn off the TV (think of the energy savings!). Then get the kids the hell outside for bug-catching, stargazing, bird-watching, shell-collecting, gardening, hiking, and kite-flying — preferably not when the sun is at its zenith. Reserve peak sun hours for cooking, napping, crafts, and puzzles — there is a crazy logic in the siesta. Even the occasional sunburn, bug bite, or bout of poison ivy is better than plunking your kids in front of the TV. (Uh-oh, here come the angry letters from the dermatologists!)

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While it is important to take precautions, it’s also important not to send the message that the outdoors is a place to fear. I’m not an expert here, just a fan of Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, which puts forth the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder. In sum, kids who lose their connection to the natural world are at risk for all sorts of maladies, ranging from attention deficit disorder to anxiety to obesity.

2. Modern-parent dilemma: Fudgsicle facilitator or stick in the mud?
Like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, the fudgin’ ice cream truck returns to my neighborhood each June. Its tinny version of “Home on the Range” sends my offspring into a Pavlovian tailspin. My daughter will lie supine and howl if I try to bar her from a crappy two-dollar helping of high-fructose corn syrup on a stick. So, what’s worse: giving in and polluting her growing body, or making the ice cream truck forbidden and all the more alluring, so much so that it could become an obsession … in her teen years … when she starts spending all her allowance money on Oreo Cyclone Cones? (Did you hear that? It’s the sound of molars cracking.)

Cold comfort.

Eco-entertainment solution: I let my daughter have a Fudgsicle once in a while. But I also make homemade ice cream using local, organic cream, mixed in a kid-powered hand-crank ice cream maker. Last summer I knew my plan was working when my daughter licked the dasher and gushed, “Moooom, your ice cream is the best!” By developing her taste for real food at a young age, I hope she’ll eventually prefer it over processed stuff.

At first glance, this solution sounds time-consuming and expensive, but it’s not as big a project as you think: You heat and mix up the ingredients (about 8 minutes, which I can do while holding a baby and talking on the phone), then chill them while the kids ready the ice cream maker with crushed ice and rock salt. Next comes the easy part: You pour the chilled stuff into the metal bucket and let the kids take turns cranking it until it is finished (25 to 30 minutes, depending on age and level of ADHD). Add in the eating time, and you’ve spent an hour-plus on ice cream on a hazy summer afternoon — and the cost for two quarts of vanilla? About $4.88. The biggest investment is the ice cream maker itself; you might have to make ice cream a bunch of times during the next few years to amortize the cost of that puppy. Gee, I bet your kids will hate that.

Bonus tip: If you’ve read Pollan, Schlosser, et al, you may be approaching the Fourth of July block party with dread (the factory-farmed burgers! the long-distance watermelon! the buttered Monsanto-on-the-cob!). So be a model, not a critic. Bring a local food dish and let ’em swoon. Not to brag, but I make chocolate cream pie using local cream and farm-fresh eggs that would win the heart of any sailor.

3. Modern-parent dilemma: Rent beach house or prepare for fall of civilization?
Food and fuel prices are rising while glaciers are melting as fast as a Dove Bar in August. Should we build sand castles while Rome burns, or should we stay home with the lights off, cutting our emissions and energy use and assuaging our feelings of guilt? Does the fact that our kids are inheriting an insane world mean that we need to skip vacation?

Summer Parenting

Seasoned in the Sun: One mother’s tips for managing summer eco-dilemmas
Get Out … Together: This summer, form a family nature club
Kyra’s Path: Reflecting on his daughter’s future, a father says the green movement must diversify
Little Steps: How to green your kids this summer
Splash Animation: Umbra on kiddie pools
Back in the Saddle: A car-free mom gets her muscles — and mind — in shape for summer

Eco-entertainment solution: You know how flight attendants tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping children? It’s not because they despise rugrats. It’s because our children need us to be conscious to help them. They also need us to be recharged enough to be firm, patient, and kind — even in the face of climate change. So go on vacation, but make it a low-carbon getaway. Camping at a local park, for instance, not only gets your kids outdoors, it makes them darn grateful for the comforts of home.

While I do think kids will need resilience, courage, and competence to face the challenges that lie ahead of them, I don’t think they need to be snaring and skinning rabbits at Camp Malthus. Heck, you don’t even need a camp to have fun and build skills. Do you have two trees, a sloping yard, and an old mattress that needs a new use? I recently downloaded instructions for how to build a zip line.

4. Modern-parent dilemma: Spooky climate campfire story or comforting fairy tale?
Is it just me, or do the latest stats on global warming make a crazy killer with a hook for a hand look good? How much do we tell the kids?

Eco-entertainment solution: I like to approach the topic of global warming the way I approach the topic of sex: with a steady stream of age-appropriate facts. My first grader, for instance, knows that the planet is getting warmer, which can cause all sorts of problems, such as weird weather. But at this point in her life, she doesn’t need to know about ocean acidification any more than she needs know about chlamydia.

Most important, she knows that people caused global warming and that people can help fight it. You could start the conversation about global warming by sending your little kids on “light patrol” around the house to switch off blazing lights. They’ll feel useful, and you can teach them about saving energy. For older kids, there are lots of potential teaching moments when it comes to global warming, but stay away from tedious lectures. (Unless you enjoy eye-rolling — then, by all means, lecture away.) Oh, and I almost forgot: Kids love spooky campfire stories, so break out the (organic) marshmallows and lay on the drama. Just leave out the part about August getting hotter thanks to global warming — that’s much too scary.