Balance. It’s perhaps the one thing that all parents strive for in life, and finding that balance is an elusive and complex thing. Earth Month is a great time to re-examine that balance: In the midst of school, carpools, violin lessons, and fluoride pills are we also impressing upon the future guardians of the planet, our children, how wondrous and fragile the natural world really is?
It may be a tough challenge, but we all feel this pull internally. The planet gives us life, and in turn there is no more important part of parenting than teaching our kids both to fully enjoy and give back to Earth.
In honor of Earth Month, we spoke with a couple dads in two very different roles here at Disney Alex Hausman and Dr. Mark Penning, who both seem to have something figured out about achieving balance in their lives.
Alex Hausman is the father of two children: a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. He lives in Altadena, Calif., and works at Disney Corporate Citizenship. Alex has been a voracious outdoor adventurer since before he had kids. Before moving to California to work at Disney, he lived on the coast of New Hampshire, and was actively into mountain biking, hiking, camping, and surfing. He and his wife were committed to keeping the outdoors a central part of their lives once they had a family, but he says it’s an ever-evolving thing.
“It keeps changing as our kids grow,” he says. “Early on, when we had our first child, we were so overwhelmed and consumed by the changes in our lives, there was a period of time where we mostly just forgot to do stuff. We forgot to take showers, forgot to eat lunch, more importantly we forgot to make time for adventure. But he says, it didn’t take them long to buy a nice backpack to carry the baby in, and get back into hiking and the outdoors.”
Alex struggles with balancing all the parts of his life like the rest of us. But he says moving to California to work with Disney Corporate Citizenship was a turning point in his life. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to pursue my passions and interests in both my professional life and personal life,” he says. “I work on a strategy team that thinks about the broader citizenship of the company, inclusive of the environmental piece. It’s a fun job because I get to wrestle with how Disney collectively wants to approach citizenship. We get to wrestle with some really tough issues. We’re trying to help improve the company’s impact, socially and environmentally, both in our community, globally, and throughout our labor chain. It’s a very future-oriented position. We think about where we’re headed, how Disney can play a positive role.”
Alex says he tries to bring the same values that guide him in his professional life into his parenting life.
“Where we live we’re surrounded by Angeles National Forest. There’s a trail behind our house. And now that my son is a little older, we did a miniature backpack trip together. We hiked out and camped, and from where we slept we could actually look back and see our house. My son loved it.”
Besides doing things in nature year-round for fun, during Earth Month, each weekend of the month he does some kind of event with his kids, to show them even at this young age their impact and responsibility to the planet.
“Being a father has meant that I’ve made a new connection to the outdoors, in a way that if I was kid-less, I don’t think would have felt aggressive enough for me. Kids have given me a chance to enjoy the more simple joys of nature, like strolling around a park or spending time in the backyard or going to the Los Angeles arboretum or doing picnics. I never would have done those things before I had kids. Now something like riding my bike with my son is an adventure that he gets to participate in. That’s what being a dad is getting to re-enjoy the things in life that you maybe haven’t done in a long time.”
Alex says simple things he does with his kids bring his mind back to his own childhood in Ohio. Bringing his kids to play in a creek at a nearby park, for example, brings back sense memories from long ago. Nature connects his life as a whole, and that’s something we can all relate to.
Dr. Mark Penning is the Director of Animal Operations of Disney Parks. “I’m a veterinarian,” he explains, “and I manage teams of people that look after all the animals in all of the Disney Parks and Resorts around the world.”
Based at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, he is responsible for the welfare of all Disney’s animals from Castaway Cay to Paris or Aulani to the horses in parades on Main Street in Anaheim. “The animals are a tremendous asset to our company, he says, and it is very important how we treat those animals.”
Mark grew up in South Africa, and says he always wanted to take care of nature. “I was very lucky. I told my teacher what I wanted to do in 2nd grade. Nature is where my soul is. If I spend time in nature, I feel much better. I feel grounded. I’m lucky that I get to work with animals but I do have a pretty stressful job in that there’s a lot of responsibility. So for me to get out and spend time in the wilds helps me re-energize. You can get lost so easily in the day-to-day running around. You can get trapped in the vortex. I need fresh air to clear the brain. I need to switch off. Nature is where I find peace. It’s where I find a sense of soul.”
He says that before he moved to the States to work with Disney, he spent a lot of time doing field work out in the wilds and would take his children along, to give them a first-hand sense of the work he feels so passionately about taking care of animals in nature.
“I was able to take my whole family along on those excursions, he says. It’s a bit different in my new position. But I used to have my son and daughter around the work I did with lions or bull elephants and I felt it was really important to really engage them — mostly so they didn’t wander off and get hurt. I would give them jobs. One of the things my daughter often did was record blood pressure measurements of the animals. They’re 13 and 14 now but at that time were 6 and 7.”
He says his kids have been in wild environments from very early ages. He doesn’t deny that sometimes in the hot sun they would get bored and tired being around his work all day, but he worked hard to get them to stretch their boundaries and their appreciation of nature. Other than giving his kids jobs, he had some pretty unusual ways of keeping their interest out in the African terrain.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I’d bribe them. If they were willing to pick up fresh elephant poop I’d give them a certain amount of money. We would drive around looking for elephant poop. It had to be steaming. And the adventure of it really brought them to life.”