Giving Kids a Greener Future with ‘Green Mama’ Manda Aufochs Gillespie

“Green Mama: Giving Your Child a Healthy Start and Greener Future” gives parents and parents-to-be a primer on how to teach kids to lead greener lives.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. Today we’re so honored to have with us Manda Aufochs Gillespie. She’s the author and founder of the Green Mama. Welcome to Green is Good, Manda. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Thank you so much, John. It’s great to be with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, before we get talking about your great website, TheGreenMama.com, and your new book, Green Mama: Giving Your Child a Healthy Start and Greener Future, which can be found at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and other great bookstores, I want you to share your story first. Give a little bit about your background to our listeners and how you even started this great website and came to write this wonderful book. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Well, I probably got into the environmental movement sort of backwards because I grew up very poor, like poor-on-welfare kind of poor, when I was young in the inner city and green obviously was the last thing on my mother’s mind. She was a single mom, three kids, mixed-race family. We were quite the crew, but I was one of those kind of bookish, sensitive children and I really looked around me a lot and noticed the way the world didn’t seem very fair and where we lived was ugly and the things that happened to us, they weren’t the American Dream sort of summed up, but I was very aware that things didn’t have to be that way. I saw other people and how they lived. I read a lot and I saw that there were different ways and I began to really think a lot about the way things are connected and I felt there was always a stigma, like when you’re poor and you’re living on subsidies or on handouts, there’s this idea of don’t look the gift horse in the mouth. Don’t speak up for the things that you see that aren’t right. Don’t talk about the problems with the indoor air quality and the high asthma rate. Don’t talk about the food dyes and the chemicals in the food that’s given to you. Just be grateful. And so I ended up going to a very privileged and amazing university, Oberlin College, and there I worked with one of the early pioneers in the green movement as a positive movement, as a movement that builds things and starts companies and that was David Orr and I really took my early passion and my sense that things could be different for all people and starting directing it towards here are some concrete skills that you can learn and I ended up doing some really cool things from that. I worked on an urban eco-village project in Cleveland, Ohio, that worked with really diverse incomes and tried to green life for everyone. I got to work on a green residential project. I got to green a corporate daycare. I’ve even worked on greening an orphanage but all that still is somewhat theoretical. I felt really drawn to take my skill on holistic thinking and research and apply it to myself when I first became pregnant and that was really the foundation and the beginning of The Green Mama, both as a website and also as myself as a writer, researcher, and educator and that started about eight years ago when I was pregnant. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wonderful, so you launched the website about eight years ago? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Yeah, yeah, and at the time, there really was very little out there that was inspiring and directed towards parents but spoke to them like they were intelligent and capable of dealing with daily dichotomies of living green with your family. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting so that makes so much sense and your background leading up to this now is so inspiring and the evolution makes now total sense to me and to our listeners, I’m sure, so now that you got going and it’s eight years into it. What are you learning? I pick up The New York Times and I read about tiger parents and you read about helicopter parents and everything else that’s going on and I see with the younger generation, raising children is so much different than when, my children happen to be older now. They’re 27 and 21. What’s going on? Has the world changed or is parenting changing? What is your take on it? Because you’re right in the middle of it and you’re right in the middle of it in terms of not only your business enterprise and being able to aggregate all this information but also, you’re doing it yourself right now so what’s your take on all of that? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: The world really is more complicated and I think it’s so important for parents to hear that because we end up hearing a lot of the media that I really call that kind of blaming language that you hear in the media; helicopter parents, attachment parents, tiger parents, this sort of idea that parents are getting it wrong. Let’s look at parents today. Parents are more educated than they’ve ever been. They’re not dumb. They’re not disinterested. They care about their children. They care more than anybody about the future but the world really has gotten more complicated. We are seeing really frightening rises in things like asthma, obesity, diabetes, ADHD, autism, pediatric cancers. It’s not just in parents’ minds that those things are going up. Science is also showing us that those things are all going up and no, we don’t know exactly why because the world is complicated and it’s hard to point to one thing but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to jump between the studies showing that these things are going up and the studies are also looking at the kind of profound implications of some of the things that we’re putting into our world such as today the 74 billion pounds of chemicals that are produced or imported into the U.S. every single day and that number is on the rise. That number is from 2005 and it’s rising and most of those chemicals are not tested. We have no idea what their effects are on human health. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Isn’t that amazing? That’s just amazing. For our listeners out there that want to see Manda’s great website as she’s sharing her thoughts today with us, go to TheGreenMama.com, www.thegreenmama.com. Manda, what’s green mean to you and what issues are you focusing on the most in terms of, we’re going to get to the book in a second but, in terms of the website. How are you sharing information and what’s your hot topics that you want to get out there and what does green mean to you? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: For me, I really try to focus on green as healthier for children and for the environment. Everything is sort of encompassed in there. We’re talking really not just about preserving rainforests and those kind of abstract ideas of pipelines and stuff like that. Really, what we’re talking about is why does your neighbor’s kid have cancer? What’s going on with ADHD? Why are you seeing this whole generation really struggling to kind of take their place in this world? That’s, to me, a sort of pertinent definition here and after years of having worked in the environmental movement before starting Green Mama, I got really used to this sort of negativity and skepticism around green. There was always this edge. You had to convince people why it was important and you had to convince the businesses that it would benefit their bottom line. You had to convince the developer how it could make their project more popular and then all of a sudden, I had my first class with parents and it was like nothing I said was enough. They wanted every single bit of it because parents care, not just because they have children but actually, when a parent becomes a parent and a child is born, they grow a new brain. Overnight they’re laying down these new neurological pathways to make all sorts of new habits so you can wake up in the middle of the night multiple times to deal with a crying baby and I always say, ‘Okay, if you’re going to be developing all these new habits anyway and you’re going to have all these worries and all these fears, what you want to do is throw in the things that are helpful. Throw in some good habits. Throw in some information that’s going to empower you and not scare you,’ so with my website, I try to stay focused on this idea that people want the information, that the information is complicated but that people are smart and if you give them a clear path through to the best of your abilities, we all benefit from that so that’s my focus. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Going green costs more, costs less? True or false? Going green costs more than just living our normal lives. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: I hate to say this because I think ultimately, we don’t need some stuff. My grandma, she was greener than me because she had her own garden, she never flew, and she had way less but let’s be realistic. I grew up on welfare. It is really hard for communities of people who are poor, who are entrenched on poverty and who are on welfare because, once again, we are left to protect ourselves. The government has dismissed a lot of what’s going on right now with the chemical industry and with aspects like that and we’re seeing corporations many times get out ahead of the government regulations and we’re seeing individuals way out ahead of it saying, ‘Okay, we know that there’s something not right here and until we kind of get on board as a society as a whole, we’re left to find the better products, to try to create healthier indoor air, try to protect our children from the worst of these exposures ourselves and it ends up being expensive. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of expensive, share a little bit about children’s products now. There’s rarely a time now when I go to a restaurant and I see kids, of course, now on iPads and I think man, if the iPad was developed when my kids were young, that would have been great but I’m not so sure of that anymore when I start talking to young parents and with regards to children’s products per se, are they better or worse in terms of your generation as you raise your children now? How has the evolution happened and where is it going? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: You know, the real answer to are they better or worse is both but really, we’re seeing such overwhelming quantities now. Clearly, I grew up poor. That’s not the same life experience that my children are having but I also take my kids every year and we spend part of the year in Guatemala, which is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It is a poor, poor country and guess what. Kids don’t have toys and guess what. They play outside all day long and it’s easy to romanticize that but I do the research. I look all the time and it’s true. Kids used to play more and playing, imaginative free play, there’s really beautiful research being done about how this is the number one indicator of your child’s future success in school, IQ even, all these kinds of things that we want for them. We want them to be independent thinkers and to succeed in the world and have the ability to lead others. This comes from imaginative creative free play and we also have interesting evidence to suggest that the more stuff that kids have, actually, the less play that they’re going to participate in. They get overwhelmed just by the sheer volume, even when it’s good stuff, not to mention that we’re throwing all sorts of toxins into kids’ toys that we know are a problem. Lead was one of the largest reasons for the recalls that happened over the last few years in plastic toys, not put on the wooden toys and the paint but in plastic toys, formaldehyde, all sorts of crazy stuff that are in kids’ toys and kids’ products that you’d think would be safe and the other thing that’s really interesting and that’s really hard to kind of get into with parents is the research on screen use with children and really, of all the research that I did for my book and that I do all the time for Green Mama, it is some of the most studied and clear evidence that’s out there that screen use harms children. It’s linked to everything from obesity to neurological issues to not being able to adapt as well socially, really clear linkages too like something like one more hour a day, 10% more of all sorts of these kind of negative impacts and most of those studies were done before i-things so our use, if anything, has gone up. We’re looking at young children having on average eight hours of some sort of screen use in a day and those were studies done before the i-things so I think this is a really big issue. It’s really important for us to take on but it’s also an equity issue. When you don’t have money, who’s watching your kids? Particularly if you live in a lot of the neighborhoods today that are entrenched with poverty, they’re not safe. They’re not kind of nostalgic poor like the neighborhoods when I grew up where kids went out and double dutched still. We lived outside and our neighborhood was poor and everyone was on welfare and it was safe. There were still problems but it was relatively safe and today I feel like, particularly in low income communities, there are real issues going on with lack of access to affordable care and even in really wonderful rich neighborhoods in cities like where I live, there’s real massive issues with access to affordable care and so what do people do? They plop down their kids in front of technology and we have to start talking as parents about the irony in feeling like we have no other choice but also knowing that this is going to cause lasting harm. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there who just joined us, we’re so honored to have with us today Manda Aufochs Gillespie. She is The Green Mama and you can check out what she’s doing at GreenMama.com. She also just published a book called Green Mama: Giving Your Child a Healthy Start and a Greener Future. It’s available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and other great bookstores around the world. Manda, here’s the deal. I want you to give in the last five minutes or so your greatest tips from the book in terms of, you have such great chapters and I gotta share with our listeners some of the chapter names here. Of course, Greening Play, Greening Skincare, Greening Food, and I never thought I’d say this on the air; Greening the Boobs, Greening the Bum, Greening the Home and Nursery. Can you share some of your favorite and greatest tips and hints from the book, from these great chapters so our listeners out there get a little taste and then they go out and buy your book, which is going to be very important for parents out there now today? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Thank you for all that. Some of my favorite tips are my favorite because they’re fun and they’re easy. One: cheap way to deal with indoor air quality issues. Take off your shoes before you come into the house or as you come into the house is another great way to reduce exposure, particularly when you have young children crawling around but also, it improves indoor air quality and wash your child’s hands frequently with plain soap, not that antibacterial stuff. I’ve got lots of science about why not to use that so just plain soap and water and buy less stuff. All those things will save you money. They’re easy, they’re fun, and they will have an actual health impact on your children. There are a few other tips that are a little harder that I think are also important. One is to learn to read labels and this gets into the overall thing that I think parents need to go away with, which is you are the expert in taking care of your own children. You are so whenever you run into a person, an institute, a label that confuses you, that tries to demean you, says things like oh really, it’s super green for you but then you look on the back and you’re like I don’t know what a single one of those words is, I can’t even pronounce them, be skeptical. You are the expert. Take power of your own expertness and trust yourself first and then a couple other more complicated things include buying organic, especially for meats and dairy. Learn the dirty dozen most contaminated fruits and veggies, which are all listed in my book, and then get outside to play. The beneficial effects of being outside and playing for your children, for you even, are so profound that they can really undo some of the negative stuff and harmful exposure that we get for the rest of our lives. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. That is really awesome. I know you live in Canada now, but you grew up in Chicago and you live in the beautiful city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Manda, talk a little bit about the differences in culture between Canada and the United States in terms of the green revolution. Who’s doing it better? Who’s doing it faster and where’s the bigger future? MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Oh no. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Loaded question, Manda. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: There’s a little hockey-like competition going on here, huh? JOHN SHEGERIAN: Exactly. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Are you going to ask me for my favorite team, too? You know, there’s this amazing thing that happened when I came to Canada. Before I moved here, I thought this was going to be the green Mecca land and there’s just endless amounts of water and forest and mountains here and people really do have sort of the green lifestyle. Everyone recycles. Everyone composts. It’s much easier in that way but there’s something about American innovation and also something else about Americans that I really think the whole world benefits from, which is this kind of indignation. Americans, when they see oh my goodness, our children are being polluted, not everyone but a lot of people get mad. They start nonprofits. They start organizations. They start education and advocacy groups. They spread the word. They write books about it. They get mad and they make a difference. I didn’t quite realize it before becoming an expat but the whole world isn’t necessarily like this. Canadians, I find, are more likely to believe that the government’s got your back, that things couldn’t possibly be that bad here, look how green it is outside my window. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting. What a difference. MANDA AUFOCHS GILLESPIE: Good, solid American innovation. There’s a few things that they could learn from Canada too about supporting that innovation through, you know, health care. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. Manda, I want you to come back on. We have so much more to talk about. You’re doing great work and please go out and buy her book now, Green Mama; Giving Your Child a Healthy Start and a Greener Future, or go to her website and follow all the great stuff she’s doing there at TheGreenMama.com. Thank you, Manda, for being the inspiring