How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change
“Amy — I’ve been reading a book with E where some kids freak out about global warming and it killing the polar bears. Last night, she asked me if global warming was real and I told her it was. She lost it, made me close the book, and started crying. How do you talk to your kids about this stuff?”
I received this note from a good friend a few months ago and have been struggling with how to answer her question ever since. It’s my job to figure out how to talk to adults about this stuff, but how do you talk to kids about the greatest threat facing our species without it completely freaking them out?
The truth is, I’m not sure you can talk about it with anyone, child or adult, without raising some fears. Without a doubt, we’re in trouble. But that message alone doesn’t serve us. Scare tactics about climate change aren’t working, any more than they are in drug abuse prevention. While I may read the news that we’ve passed the 400 parts per million or 2 degrees Celsius thresholds with a heavy heart, that information doesn’t mean much to most people, and certainly not to children.
I can relate to E’s experience. In my sustainability classes, I often use the iconic picture of a stranded polar bear to remind my students exactly what’s at stake. Not only do we stand to lose one in six of our species in a massive extinction event caused by global warming, but humans are also threatened in alarming scale and scope.
Some days, the knowledge of what we face is overwhelming. I want to close the book and start crying, too. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I have no choice.
But ignoring the problem is part of what’s gotten us where we are. It’s far more effective if we can face what’s happening and choose action instead. Action is catalyzing. Action helps us to feel we have control over our circumstances and their outcome. And it’s this realization that’s helped me figure out how we can talk to children about the monumental task in front of us. Not talking to kids about climate change is like not talking to kids about sex: it can be scary and confusing to try to explain, but sooner or later they are going to hear about it — and wouldn’t you rather they hear about it from you? After all, today’s children stand to be the first to be truly, deeply impacted by global warming.
So, here are my suggestions for how to talk to kids — or, really, anyone — about global warming.
Tell the truth.
As a parent of two precocious children myself, I’m of the opinion that we typically sell kids short on their ability to “get” big ideas. We adults don’t always trust that kids will understand and so we over simplify or make attempts to cushion the truth. My own kids always surprise me — they are far more perceptive than I usually give them credit for. Therefore, I’ve committed to be honest with them, even about the big stuff.
It’s important to tell kids the truth about climate change, even though it’s scary, and even though it’s hard. Start by educating yourself about global warming and its impacts. Think about how it might affect you and your kids. Be ready to answer their questions or help them seek out the answers. Then share with them what you’ve learned.
I like to use a blanket analogy to talk about global warming, because even little kids get it. They know what fun it is to hide under a blanket and feel it get warmer and warmer. You can help them understand that the discomfort they eventually feel under a blanket makes other things feel uncomfortable, too — like plants and animals — and can ask them simple questions, like what would happen to ice if it were under the blanket. From there, it’s a logical jump for most kids to imagine what might happen if the earth itself were under a blanket. My own kids are quick to come up with answers — and even quicker to want to find solutions. They get what’s at stake, often without me having to say so.
For some children — and adults — those implications may be more than they can bear. They may have a strong emotional reaction of fear, sadness, grief, or anger. It’s crucial, in that moment, that we listen and hold space. Our children have a right to express their feelings, and in light of what we face, their emotional reactions are completely justified. If anything, kids are more in touch with their feelings on this topic than most grown-ups.
By listening to our children — by bearing witness — we honor their experience and their emotional process. We can get in touch with our own feelings about climate change by doing so. We can avoid repressing our fears and our grief, which cause us to turn away from the pain instead of facing it. We can share a moment of unity with our children by acknowledging that we are all in this together — both the destruction of our planet and its inhabitants, and, ideally, it’s ultimate redemption. In the wise words of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”*
We have a responsibility not to leave our children — or ourselves — in despair. In despair, we give up. We lose hope. Without hope, it will be difficult for us to imagine a future different from the path we are currently on. And if we don’t believe the future can be different, there will be nothing to motivate us to change.
In my work, I continuously scan the environmental news for the latest in sustainability trends and tech. I can tell you, unequivocally, that there is hope. Renewable energy, worldwide, has reached and passed a tipping point; it is now the fastest growing source of global energy. Coal and other fossil fuels are in decline. Energy storage capacity is on the rise, as are electric vehicles (EV). Solar cells are getting lighter and smaller.
More promising policies and discoveries are already underway: the Paris COP21 global accords; fuels produced by algae; nighttime lights made by phosphorescent organisms; electric roads that charge your EV as you drive; pezioelectric tech that can charge your phone as you walk; stationary bicycles that promise to charge the lights in your house.
This is a small cross-section of the amazing work happening in the energy sector alone. Similar discoveries are being explored, tested, and manufactured to help us manage water issues, waste management, and the growing consumer demands of an ever-increasing population. There is every reason to believe that we will be able to halt and potentially even reverse climate change and its impacts. That is a message that we all need to hear, but especially our kids.
Hope becomes the springboard for action. It may sound trite, but even small actions can have big consequences. By engaging kids in action, they can gain a sense of control over what seems like an overwhelming obstacle. Encourage kids to learn more about what they can do to help. Get their assistance with switching lightbulbs, conserving hot water, growing a garden, shopping for responsible products, even taking political action. Conservation is an outstanding way to educate kids about systems, science, and willpower.
If your kids seem despondent, tell them the starfish parable. While this is a simplistic story, its point is that even a small person like a child can make a difference. If any of our great human rights leaders had given up in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming odds, women would never have gained the right to vote, segregation would still be legal, and the British would still rule in India.
Join the community.
Our feelings about climate change can isolate us; one of our natural reactions to a threat is to flee. However, there is a groundswell of climate action taking place all over the world. You and your children can tap into this community, and in it, find fellowship and even joy. By working with others, our task doesn’t feel so monumental. One of the most powerful moments of my life was when I raised my voice with 400,000 others at the 2014 Climate March in New York City. During the march, I felt completely inspired, certain that together, we could accomplish anything.
How can you and your children join in the fight for environmental or social justice? Explore the organizations in your area that are working for human, animal, or ecological rights. Connecting with, or volunteering for, these communities can instill powerful values in your children while also creating a sense of belonging with others who are devoted to making a difference.
We face an ecological crisis the proportions of which we have never before realized. The solution will take all of us. Among the beautiful children of today are the next Albert Einstein, the next Nikola Tesla, the next Rachel Carson, the next Edward Abbey. By acknowledging our children’s fears and helping them to transform their fears into action, we have the power to inspire a generation of climate heroes. And maybe, along the way, ourselves.
*This quote comes from Seuss’ The Lorax. It’s a great way to introduce the idea of ecological destruction and conservation to your children. I’m of the opinion that it should be required reading for Congress.