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Parenting for a Sustainable World: Cultivating a Reverence for Life

Written by Lysa Parker   
Thursday, 01 March 2012 00:00
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It wasn’t until I became a parent that I truly understood the deep connection between early childhood experiences and how they affect our relationship to the earth and all living things. In my work with children, I found that many kids seem to have a natural affinity to nature, but this affinity must be nurtured, or it gets buried like so many other gifts. When my oldest son was an infant, he was always calmest when we were outside. He could be in a full wail, but as soon as we went outside his crying stopped. To this day he loves to be outdoors, and when he feels the need to get centered and calm, he will go to his favorite place in a nature preserve or a park. There is a spiritual, unknowable, meditative energy in nature that evokes awe and reverence if we will be still, listen and observe.


The Man Behind a Movement

While doing research years ago for another project, I learned more about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) and his contributions to humanity. He was a theologian, medical doctor, philosopher, scholar, speaker, writer, musician and humanitarian. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for building a hospital in West Africa and devoting his life to treating the people there, who suffered from disease, famine and the ravages of war. As I was doing research for this article, about the relationship between attachment parenting and the environmental movement, I kept coming back to Dr. Schweitzer’s work. He is best known for creating an ethical philosophy in 1915 called “Reverence for Life,” a philosophy that he considered the basis for morality, which he referred to as a universal principle of ethics. In his 1923 treatise, Civilization and Ethics, Schweitzer wrote:

Ethics is nothing other than Reverence for Life. Reverence for Life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.

According to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship website, Dr. Schweitzer stressed “the interdependence and unity of all life,” and is considered by many to be the forerunner of the environmental and animal welfare movements. In 1962, author Rachel Carson dedicated her revolutionary book, Silent Spring, which ignited the environmental movement, to Dr. Schweitzer.

The Reverence for Life ethic may seem obvious to those who have highly developed capacities of empathy and compassion for all living things; for others it takes an awakening of conscience, with some re-educating about how our actions impact living systems. The family system is one that has been neglected for too long and is our only hope for future generations, so we have to view all living systems as integral parts of the whole. What we do, how we interact with each other, and what we teach our children will determine how they treat others and engage in the world. Being the quintessential observer and philosopher that he was, Dr. Schweitzer understood this well, and addressed the importance of teaching children, stating: “Adults teach children in three important ways: The first is by example, the second is by example and the third is by example.”


Attachment Parenting

Someone said, “When you change the way you view the world, the way you view the world will change.” That’s what happened to me thirty-odd years ago when I became pregnant and read Suzanne Arms’s book, Immaculate Deception: My worldview changed and the activist in me was born. I was later introduced to the breastfeeding and attachment parenting world through La Leche League meetings in Nashville, Tennessee, where I discovered my passion and mission in life, to advocate for children and their families. Initially, my journey into attachment parenting was one of trepidation, because I didn’t know anyone who had older children that had actually parented this way. With the support and experience of other mothers at the meetings, and watching them interact with their children so lovingly and respectfully, I couldn’t resist my awakening intuition that told me it was right. At one meeting, I met Barbara Nicholson, and we became lifelong friends and sisters in this journey ever since.

In the early ’90s we learned that many attachment parenting groups were popping up across the country, but there was no distinct or cohesive movement or clarity about what this new phenomenon actually was. Everyone seemed to have their own interpretation. The term “attachment parenting” (AP) was coined by Dr. William and Martha Sears, and was defined by the principles they called the “Baby B’s” as a way of helping parents learn to empathize and become more attuned to their infants. (These included “birth bonding,” “breastfeeding” and “belief in a baby’s cry.”) Their books were our lifeline, because no other pediatricians, let alone mainstream society, were supporting our choices. As educators, we saw the disconnection of our students due to dysfunction in their homes, and we felt strongly that it was due in large part to parents not having accurate parenting information or support. In 1994, Barbara and I formed our grassroots, nonprofit organization, Attachment Parenting International (API), to provide parents with the evidence-based information they need to debunk the bad advice of many popular parenting books (some still popular today), and created parent support groups around the country and internationally.

At that time, many AP families were also involved in the environmental movement, but we knew that we had to keep our message simple and focused strictly on principles related to the parent-child attachment relationship, just as La Leche League International later decided it had to focus on breastfeeding rather than parenting. It didn’t mean that we didn’t value or appreciate natural-living lifestyles, just that we knew we had all we could handle in terms of promoting the attachment message. We also understood that if we could help parents raise empathic children, then that empathy would carry over in all aspects of life.

Some felt that the Searses had created a parenting formula, but what they really taught us was to trust our intuition and the reasons why this empathic style of parenting was so critical to children, the family and society. Their overarching message helped us learn to respect and trust our baby’s cues and our own instincts; the baby will tell the parent what she needs through her body language and cries, and the parent’s sensitive response to her cues will teach her the first lessons of trust. And that was just the beginning.

“Compassion, in which all ethics must take root, can only attain its full breadth and depth if it embraces all living creatures and does not limit itself to mankind.” —Dr. Albert Schweitzer


Creating a Conscience

The Searses have long taught that when we see the world through our children’s eyes, our worldview changes. We begin to feel more respect and empathy for our children’s feelings, and act accordingly. The way we are treated as children and the example our parents set for us are the primary determining factors in developing a conscience. Every child’s brain has the capacity to develop empathy, compassion and remorse, all of which comprise the inner workings of the conscience. The brain is a “use it or lose it” organ, so the window of opportunity to develop these capacities is in the early years of a child’s life. These early experiences don’t rest solely on our interpersonal relationships, but also in what we are taught about our relationship with the external environment—teaching the value of and expressing appreciation for the natural world.