Are we really sure that children can influence their families' environmental behavior?

by Chiara Manghetti, Italy, ELP 2015
Written on July 28, 2015.

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In the marketing world children's "pester power," the power that children have on parents to determine certain choices, is well known and used to address consumer choice. Just watch the advertisements on TV and you will realize that the main target of most products like breakfast cereals, snacks, clothes and schools supplies are children, not adults. Consumer research has reveled some time ago that kids have significant influence over decisions about products that they will primarily be using (Mangleburg, 1990).

But not only the marketing industry is using kids' power to influence their families' choices. Environmental educators are often targeting children, especially through school projects aiming to change environmental behaviors in adults. But are we really sure that this strategy works?

In the last years, different researchers have tried to answer to this question. While it has been proven by different researchers that parents' knowledge of a certain environmental issue increases when their children are participating in environmental education projects (for example: Rakotomanonjy et al., 2015), it is difficult to find empirical evidence to substantiate that the children will also influence their parent’s behavior. Studies like "Impact of an environmental education program on students' and parents' attitudes, motivation, and behaviors" (Legault et al., 2000.) conclude that environmental education programs in schools do not have any impact on students’ parents' behaviors. Moreover, school programs that deliberately extend action from kids to parents (for example one involving kids as "green police" and asking children to "punish" parents that do not comply certain environmental behaviors) have instead caused some adults to become defensive by creating an oppositional relationship. We all know that shame rarely motivates and leads to behavioral changes.

So as environmental leaders, should we give up the plan to change people's behavior through environmental education programs? As an environmental educator, I would never say that. I truly believe in the power of education, both short term and long term. But I definitely think that as leaders we should be less naive about the power of education programs targeting schoolchildren and be more skilled on defining an environmental education strategy to target our audiences. In my opinion, if we really want to change families' environmental behaviors, we should involve families directly in our programs, encouraging dialogue and building skills. An idea would be to have parents participating actively in locally restoring actions with their kids and local community, or simply having parents as helpers during programs in the field.


Legault, Louise; Pelletier, Luc G.Canadian "Impact of an environmental education program on students' and parents' attitudes, motivation, and behaviors." Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, Vol 32(4), Oct 2000, 243-250.

Mangleburg, T. "Children's Influence in Purchase Decisions: A Review and Critique". Advances in Consumer Research 17 (1990): 813-825.

Rakotomamonjy, S. N., Jones, J. P. G., Razafimanahaka, J. H., Ramamonjisoa, B. and Williams, S. J. (2015), "The effects of environmental education on children's and parents' knowledge and attitudes towards lemurs in rural Madagascar". Animal Conservation, 18: 157–166. doi: 10.1111/acv.12153