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On Trying to be a Green Grandma (Safta), by Deborah LR Kornfeld

November 2021

In the beginning:

“Safta, Safta did you bring me something” says my little grandson as he flings himself into my arms. I have been a grandparent for over fifteen years now and have a gaggle of grandchildren. Being a grandparent is a fascinating and rewarding privilege. Privileged to be healthy and sturdy enough to take them on a hike, privileged that my children decided to have children, privileged to have the curiosity and patience to enjoy each and every one of them. At the same time, I find myself increasingly worried about their future, anxious about the price our disrespect for the environment will cost them. I know that combating climate change involves global and political action, but personal efforts remind us on a daily basis that we are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The personal: In a sense I am the quintessential grandmother. I have the white hair and thick glasses of an emoji grandma. I bake cookies, make homemade soup, and enjoy craft projects. Indulging the grandchildren is a given. I might serve them ice cream for breakfast. Grandparents, especially those who live far from their grandchildren want to have that special connection. We want to feel the love. We want to be that grandparent who makes those dreams come true, makes the grandchild squeal with delight and jump for joy.

Some challenges:

There can be a secret competitiveness and even envy between grandparents (especially if you are the out-of-town grandparents). A friend of mine bought her one-year-old grandson a basic firetruck sturdily constructed of recycled green and blue plastic for his birthday, the other side purchased a bright red battery-run fire truck with whistles and bells. Which one did the little boy run towards? We might buy a grandchild some bamboo socks while the other grandparents order a Frozen II 6volt electric Ride-On vehicle with a built-in microphone and speaker. But for me, beyond indulging the grandchildren, I yearn to pass on my values, and to model and demonstrate my sense of morality, justice and concern for our planet and the people who live on it. I want to do all this without being a “Debby Downer” or indulging myself in pedantically boring lectures.

A true story:

Last summer our neighbors across the street moved. For three weeks straight there were mountains (12’x3’x4’) of household detritus on the side of the street. It was furniture, clothing, dishes, baby equipment and a ton of plastic toys. There was some curbside shopping by the neighbors, but mostly it all ended up in the landfill. I stared out my window both overwhelmed and in despair. When did we become such a throw-away nation? When did kids seem to “need” so many toys? In Tatiana Schlossberg’s book Inconspicuous Consumption: The environmental impact you don’t know you have she illustrates the hidden consequences of many choices we make. That plastic truck you bought your grandchild was made in China from a by-product of the fossil fuel industry, transported by ship across the ocean and then by truck to your neighborhood Target store, played with for a while and then dumped into its final resting place in a landfill where, according to my google search, it takes hundreds or thousands of years to decompose and can potentially leach toxicity into our water and soil. Honestly, this consciousness is a little paralyzing.

The irony:

In our current economic model, we need to consume. Many of the indicators like consumer spending, the GDP, home sales, and retail sales are monitored anxiously to measure the health of our economy. To reach sustainability we need to consume less or at least consume differently.

Some thoughts:

We can be caring and generous grandparents and be conscious of the impact our actions have on our planet. We can be mindful and still be fun and indulgent. First and foremost, we can model being a participating environmentalist. We can talk from time to time about our political or environmental efforts. Action is a powerful antidote to anxiety, which is a common response to thinking about climate issues. Our gift-giving can also reflect our values. The grandchildren might roll their eyes as we hand them the reusable drinking straw for Chanukah (okay, this might be a little extreme), but they’ll know that we love them and that we care about their future. In addition, we can model gratitude, activism, awe, wonder and curiosity about our world. When our grandchildren listen to us talk about environmental policy, or differentiate between want and need, or watch us compost our food waste or recycle or upcycle clothing, or walk instead of driving to a nearby errand or plan our baking to make maximum use of the oven or turn off the lights when we leave a room or put on a sweater instead of raising the heat or share with them your love of nature– it can make a lasting impression. Years ago, one of my grandchildren literally “dissed” me when I made a comment about conserving water “Safta, what do you know?” he said with the assurance of a know-it-all 6-year-old. Fast forward to today and he is a teenager and is now both aware and concerned of our environmental challenges.


  • Ask your children what they think your grandchild would like and what they, as parents, want and what their house can accommodate.

  • Give the gift of experiences. It can be a live performance or concert, or a sporting event, or a pick-up trash adventure on a coastline followed by some ice-cream or a hike to a beautiful overview.

  • Look for toys that can be played with at different levels and have multiple uses; dolls, blocks, Legos or Magnetiles are classic examples.

  • A game can be a great gift, but choose carefully and get recommendations; some games are very long and have complex rules and many, many pieces, which is great if that is what you and your grandchild like.

  • Be cautious when buying kits, some of them have excess packaging, are hard to put together and have crazy instructions.

  • Look at how the toy is made. Will it last?

  • Look at the packaging-- is it excessive?

  • Think about where and how was the toy made.

  • Think about how it might have to be disposed of-- can it be recycled or passed on?

  • Teach your grandchild to cook, bake, sew, garden, or build with wood together. Whatever is your “jam” can be a gift.

  • Be mindful when wrapping presents; use old maps or grocery bags or used gift bags or don’t wrap it at all, just hide it behind your back.

  • If you are an in-town grandparent, get out of the habit of always bringing something. Instead try to make each visit special in a different way. You can have book-reading visits, cookie baking visits (if that is your thing), game visits, park visits, exploration visits, goofy dancing visits or science experiment visits.

  • Include them in an environmental action. Take them to a rally or work together making a poster, followed by ice-cream of course.

  • Consider used toys in good condition or perhaps sponsor a toy swap.

In the end:

Sometimes when my grandson comes running up to me calling out “Safta, Safta did you bring me something” I do have something. I enjoy giving him surprises. I like the smile that a little piece of candy brings to his adorable face. In the end I would love to give my grandchildren a sustainable future, I want to give them hope and a sense of empowerment, but for now I will give gifts from time to time and they give me hope. I am hopeful when my grandkids show me that they’ve drawn on both sides of the paper, and when they brag that they never, never litter and I am especially hopeful when they whisper as we hike through a beautiful forest: “Oh Safta, I love the trees, too”.

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