We devote much of our lives to our children: we pay mortgages so they have a yard, look for homes near good schools, plan around their schedule and try to stay healthy to remain with them.
Until recently parents also passed on what they knew – hunting, farming, the family trade – expecting their children’s life to be much as theirs had been. During the boom of the last few generations, though, that changed -- people assumed life in the future would be unimaginably different, and sent their children to be educated by experts rather than be left behind. Older people have been seen as obsolete, and old skills – farmer, cobbler, mason, wright – have vanished except as surnames.
Our children might face a world moving in a different direction. All the numbers that have curved ever more vertically upward – fossil fuel use, population, consumption, waste – must at some point stabilise or fall. Technology may continue to develop, but there might be less industry to build it, less energy to run it and less wealth to pay for it.
Many people understand times will get tougher. Most people also have kids. Yet publications that discuss peak energy, the environment or the economy rarely talk about children, or how to train them for the world they foresee. Whether you have kids or not, it’s a useful exercise – it means thinking seriously about what the world might look like in ten or twenty years, beyond a blurry pastiche of Hollywood apocalypses.
Of course, so much could go wrong that it’s difficult to predict a single future to prepare them for. Should we try to steer them towards resume and software skills to succeed in today’s difficult job market, or will those jobs not exist by the time they are adults? Or train them to survive a collapse that might never come? We could teach them self-sufficient skills of farming and village crafts, but we don’t know for certain what will be needed – and they might have to practice them while still making a living in the world of suburbs and office complexes, and which does not have a ready market for farriers and cobblers.
We can’t second-guess the universe, but we can give our kids some fundamental knowledge and attitude to react to a wide spectrum of unforeseen events. If you home-school, you can create whole courses for them – but even if you don’t, you can make supper, driving conversations or bedtime stories an opportunity for teaching.
We find cooking a good place to start. Amazingly, more than half of all Americans don’t cook anything that didn’t come out of a package. Show them how to sautee onions, blanch beans, sear meat, make salad dressing and assemble the basic trinity of vegetables, starch and protein. They don’t have to become a master chef – they just have to know what to do between crops and the supper table.
Children don’t need to become overnight farmers any more than we do – they can start small. Let them put beans on wet paper towels and watch them grow into sprouts. Have them plant seeds in an egg carton, and watch it become cress. Most kids love to search through woods and fields naturally, and unbidden would hunt for crayfish or snails like Easter eggs – and my daughter loves knowing what she can eat and what she can’t.
They are alchemists at heart, and love seeing milk become yogurt, fruit dried for snacks, vegetables pickled. To a child, there are few things more fun than pounding and playing with bread dough. To us, there are few things more entertaining than their look of astonishment when you uncover the hidden dough and it’s twice as large as before.
Of course we want to protect them from the world, especially one that might get scarier in the future. Remember, though, that children are stressed by different things than we are. Friends and relatives of mine grew up in the Great Depression or the famine of post-war Germany, through what we would consider hell -- but as they were children and loved, that world was normal to them. Moreover, they often benefited from the early experience, continuing to garden and conserve during the oil window when it was unfashionable.
Kids find normal what they do every day, no matter how we feel about it, and they learn things not because we think they are important, but because we make them interesting and repeat them over and over. Make the lessons into song lyrics, set to some catchy tune they like, or into a game or a contest.
If they are school-age, show them how money works. Demonstrate that take-out food can be made more quickly at home, for a fraction of the price. Introduce them to compound interest – lend them a small amount of money at five percent interest per day, and show them how they owe twice as much in two weeks. Later, if they have credit cards and mortgages, they might remember.
I have tried to introduce my daughter, cheerfully and in baby steps, to the idea that accidents sometimes happen – we’ll probably be fine, and there’s no point worrying about it, but it’s best to be prepared just in case. She helped me pack an emergency bag, and we recited the contents like a nursery rhyme: If it rains we have ponchos, masks if there’s smoke. This filters water if pipes ever broke. She was delighted by the game, and continues to come up with new ideas for what to pack – a compass, vitamins, water.
Over time, I hope I can bring in the connectedness of the world. This new gadget all your friends have – where was it made? What is that country like? How much energy does it take to ship it here? How long does it last? I don’t want to introduce her to too much global tragedy too early, of course, but older children might like the opportunity to solve a mystery, and would take more seriously a conclusion they’ve reached on their own.
I want her to keep asking the child’s questions that adults often dismiss, whose depths we are trained to avoid – why aren’t there rhinos in Ireland anymore? How do you make electricity? What happens to rubbish?
Bring them along. Let them see you shovel a community garden, shop at a yard sale, split a bulk-food order with co-op members or speak at a council meeting, and see that these are normal things people do.
Finally, I try to remember that children are not blogs we fill with our own ideas – they have their own will, and you can influence them as you influence your spouse, but you’re not going to make them into someone they’re not. Luckily, there are uses for every type of personality, and we will need everyone in the years ahead. Try to make your kids understand that too – we’re all in this together.