As parents, it's important that we talk to our children about topics we wish we didn't have to discuss. From refusing drugs to dealing with strangers, there are many things that kids need to know. Every parent has his or her own list, and we think a chat about cleaning products and household chemicals should be on it.
Unlike adults, who are finished growing, children are particularly susceptible to the health effects that can be caused by exposure to the synthetic toxins found in many conventional cleaners. Even if you use green cleaners at home, encouraging a healthy sense of caution is vital because out in the world -- at their friend's house or at the supermarket -- such chemicals are common. Here's some guidance:
- At the supermarket, show them examples of the kinds of products you're talking about. Explore some warning labels together and talk about what they mean.
- Explain to your kids that products like cleaners often contain chemicals that can make us sick if we breathe too much of them or get a lot on our skin.
- Tell them that these chemicals are things you can't really see. Their invisibility makes it very hard to tell if they're in the air or on a surface. Sometimes we can smell the product, (which means we're too close!), but often it's impossible to know if we're breathing or touching it.
- Explain that there are a lot of different ways chemicals can make us sick, and that we can't always count on a sudden sick-to-our-stomach feeling to tell us they're around.
- Explain that some people feel these products are okay to use but that you disagree. Tell your children that you have thought and read a lot about the subject and have decided that it's best not to take any chances. Explain that this is why you buy alternative products that keep us safe when we use them.
While such talking points can be helpful, children's mental health clinician Louise Chiola says that no one knows better than parents what messages are appropriate for their children. "Every parent has to make their own decision about what to say,” she says. “But no matter what you decide, there are things you can do to make the conversation easier to have and some tried and true strategies you can use to make sure your kids really get the message." To communicate warnings about chemical hazards more effectively, Chiola suggests that parents:
- Keep it simple. Use uncomplicated language, short words, and straightforward explanations. Stick to the big picture and don't get bogged down in details. The more basic the message, the more likely it will stick.
- Keep it light. Don't frighten kids with dramatic statements or horror stories. Reassure them that they have nothing to worry about, and you simply want to keep it that way.
- Be honest. If you don't know an answer to a question, look it up together. Don't leave gaps in your information for overactive imaginations to fill in.
- Share your environmental values as you talk. Kids want ethical guidance from their parents, and this is a good chance to provide it.
- Repeat yourself. Kids can only absorb so much information at any one time. Let some time pass after your initial talk and then ask your child to tell you what he or she remembers about it. This will identify knowledge gaps and help you correct erroneous impressions.
Several conversations will make sure your children get the point. And once they have, you'll be able to rest easier knowing that they've absorbed some important wisdom that will allow them to enjoy a safe childhood and a happy, healthy life.