Research Summary

Childhood origins of young adult environmental behavior

Mothers' education and environmental attitudes and behaviors and children's time spent outdoors predict environmental behavior in young adulthood

Psychological Science

The aim of this longitudinal study was to examine whether several childhood factors predict young adults’ pro-environmental behavior. Previous research examining childhood origins of later life environmental behavior relied on adults’ retrospective reports of information about their childhood. This study differs by measuring childhood factors during childhood and then assessing environmental attitudes and behaviors twelve years later.

This study collected data from 74 individuals when they were 6 years of age and then again when they were 18. Data collected when the participants were 6 included information about their pro-environmental behaviors and attitudes and the amount of time they spent outdoors. Additional data collected at this time focused on their mothers’ education, political ideology, and environmental attitudes and behaviors. Instruments used in collecting this information included the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale (for environmental attitudes) and the General Ecological Behavior (GEB) scale (for environmental behavior). Twelve years later, the same instruments were used to assess the young adults’ pro-environmental behavior and attitudes. Adapted versions of these scales were used with the children when they were six years old.

Analysis of the data revealed that over a 12-year period (from ages 6 to 18) individuals who grew up with mothers with more pro-environmental attitudes and who engaged in more pro-environmental behavior demonstrated more pro-environmental behaviors themselves as young adults. The mother’s educational attainment -- but not political ideology -- was also associated with more pro-environmental behavior as children matured. Additionally, childhood time spent outdoors was positively associated with increased environmentally responsible behavior in young adulthood. One’s own childhood pro-environmental behavior and attitude -- as assessed at age 6 – did not predict one’s eventual pro-environmental behavior as a young adult. The two childhood predictors of positive changes in environmental behavior from early childhood to young adulthood (i.e., maternal education and childhood time spent outdoors) worked independently of each other versus in tandem.

These findings are consistent with prior research suggesting that early experiences in nature are linked with pro-environmental behavior later in life. The current research adds to the literature by showing that parental factors matter for the eventual development of an adult’s engagement in pro-environmental behavior. The young adults who grew up with mothers who behaved in a more environmentally sustainable manner and had a stronger environmental attitude behaved in a more pro-environmental manner themselves. If their mothers were better educated, they also engaged in more pro-environmental behavior as young adults. This research, then, suggests that maternal factors and childhood time spent outdoors are predictors of young adults’ environmental behavior.