Making Monsters and Badgering Parents to a Better World

10/25/19

The recent international response to Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism should be a stark reminder to us all that kids have considerable power to change others. As one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2019, Thunberg has reached millions with her messages about climate change.

True, Thunberg is not your everyday kid, but nearly all children have some measure of influence on the people around them, especially within the walls of their own homes.

A 2016 study published in the journal Nature Energy1 revealed that energy efficiency programs targeting children can have a lasting impact on family behavior. In this study, which involved about 300 Girl Scouts in the fourth and fifth grades, respondents reported a 50 percent increase in their energy-saving behavior immediately following classes on residential energy efficiency. Seven months later, respondents reported behaviors that were still 27 percent more efficient than their behavior before attending the classes.2

These are exciting results on their own, as children have the direct ability to turn off a light switch or make sure a load of laundry is full before starting it. But what’s more, they can change their parents’ behavior, too. The Girl Scout study showed that the behavior of parents after the classes (that only their daughters attended) was immediately 12 percent more efficient, and seven months later, six percent more efficient.

How does this transaction from child learning to family behavior change actually take place? Many working in sustainability cite the “Inconvenient Youth” effect3 – which involves the natural inclination of minors to pester their parents about a wide range of bad behavior: smoking, texting and driving – and letting the water run when they brush their teeth. Some parents react with genuine enlightenment and appreciation about how saving energy is not hard and can save money. Others may cooperate just to humor their little darlings. And a few more may change behavior they know is bad because they want their kids to look up to them. 

In a new educational initiative in the Tennessee Valley, TVA is tapping the power of children to promote residential energy efficiency. TVA understands the value children bring as energy consumers and recognizes them as important players in influencing household decisions and developing approachable ways to engage them. To help TVA with its goal of reaching this new audience of energy users, Milepost organized a team of experts, which included an early childhood education consultant, graphic designers and engagement specialists.

Our creative work delivered the Energy Monsters: Watt, Spark, Bolt, Newton, Zap, and Breaker, who help children understand where energy comes from, how energy is consumed and what steps kids and their families can take to reduce energy and water use in their homes. The Energy Monsters made their debut in a 16-page educational activity booklet, and in a short time have grown into an interactive workshop available across TVA’s service area, in partnership with participating local power companies and other community partners. Workshop attendees receive take-home kits that include the activity book and other fun resources that reinforce energy-saving behaviors in the home. Over the next 12 months, TVA has a goal of reaching approximately 5,000 children across its service area through the delivery of roughly 200 workshops.

The Energy Monsters are proving to be a valuable and effective vehicle for engaging kids in playing an active role in energy efficiency. And as research suggests, the Energy Monster messages are highly likely to be passed on from children to their parents, siblings and others living in the home – quite possibly through nagging, hounding and badgering. And if it reduces energy waste and relieves the household budget, we’re OK with that.

1. https://www.nature.com/articles/nenergy201691

2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/07/11/the-best-way-to-teach-adults-to-save-energy-might-be-through-their-children/

3. https://www.greenbiz.com/article/inconvenient-youth-pestering-others-pro-social-behavior

Contributing writers for this Insight include Taylor Cvern and Mollie Henry.

Luke Gebhard
Luke Gebhard