It can be hard to speak to kids about complicated issues.
In a poll about speaking to children about climate change, NPR reports that “84 percent of parents, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, agreed that children should be learning about climate change. But, only 45 percent of parents, just over half as many, said they had actually talked to their own kids about it.”
While young children may not understand the science of greenhouse gases or ocean acidity, few issues will affect their lives now and in the future more than climate change.
The conversation has to happen at some point. Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman of the University of Bath, in the United Kingdom, and the Climate Psychology Alliance, recommends bringing it up to children as young as two or three.
“As soon as you start teaching them to talk, and engage emotionally and relationally with the world, climate change needs to be woven into their world, so they are developing that emotional intelligence and resilience from a young age,” she told Yale Climate Connections.
So, how do we talk to our kids about the environment?
Young children define their world by what they see. They may not have the global worldview of an adult, but they still understand the cause and effect circumstances of keeping their environment clean.
“If you make a mess where plants and animals live, it can hurt them, and if you clean up, it helps them,” says Wendy Greenspun, a New York–based clinical psychologist engaged in climate issues.
It’s also important to commend children when they do something that’s respectful tot he environment. Something like, “Thank you for turning off the lights, that’s helping the planet,” goes a long way, says Robin Gurwitch, a professor and clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health.
“When people most important to us notice our actions,” she says, “we’re more likely to do again and carry it forward.”
Children learn from tactile examples more than abstract concepts. They are more than capable of drawing connections between changes in the natural world. A good way to illustrate those changes is to go for a walk as one season shifts into another.
Ronnie Citron-Fink, a former schoolteacher and now the editorial director of Moms Clean Air Force, suggests taking children outside to observe “how leaves fall from trees in autumn, then sprout again in spring. Point out migrating birds or butterflies that come and go with the seasons.”
The NRDC recommends the same.
“Living things grow and thrive when we care for them,” the NRDC reports. “Children learn through doing, so try planting seeds or caring for animals as a way to raise young environmentalists.”
Stick to the facts
Our tendency to soften big ideas with analogy and metaphor doesn’t always make the point clear. It can be confusing or send the wrong message to children. Instead, keep the message short, succinct and descriptive.
Reporters at NPR created this script based on conversations educators and psychologists. They recommend using it with children 4 years old or older.
“Humans are burning lots and lots of fossil fuels for energy, in planes, in cars, to light our houses, and that’s putting greenhouse gases into the air. Those gases wrap around the planet like a blanket and make everything hotter.
A hotter planet means bigger storms, it melts ice at the poles so oceans will rise, it makes it harder for animals to find places to live.
And it’s a really, really big problem, and there are a lot of smart people working hard on it, and there’s also lots that we can do as a family to help.”
You know your child best, of course, and can give them the appropriate level of detail where necessary.
Practice with other adults
Climate change can be a scary topic for adults. Many of us spend hours, day or night, endlessly scrolling through newsfeeds digging us deeper into worry.
“The emotional aspect is actually, I think, one of the biggest aspects of climate work right now,” Mary DeMocker, an activist and author of The Parents’ Guide To Climate Revolution, told NPR. “Who wants to talk about this idea of imminent doom or huge storms or wildfires sweeping through your town? … It’s frightening. I can’t look at it every day. I have to take it in microdoses honestly.”
Oftentimes, adults shy away from bringing up these ideas because they may only serve to scare children. The solution is to bring up climate change with other adults. Normalize the conversation, so there’s less of a ledge to step off when you breech the subject to younger ones.
Bringing up climate change without including the many ways humans are working to fix it is like telling a bedtime story with no protagonist.
“Children can be frightened if they don’t know there are adults who care about climate change and are trying to fix problems,” Greenspun says. “It can help battle the sense of helplessness and powerlessness.”
The fact is, millions of humans are working to reduce the effects of climate change and protect the health and future of our planet. Some of those efforts make more sense to children than others.
As the NRDC reports, you can bring up the Chinese solar farms designed in the shape of pandas, recycled materials used in playground equipment, the Turn It Off campaign or Meatless Mondays. Each of these ideas reduce the accelerating climate crisis in a unique way.
So, are you ready to start the conversation?Whizzco