A photo from a climate change protest with the sign, "Climate Now, Homework later" that is visible.

Jonathan Kemper

climate change

Jonathan Kemper

Yes, Kids Can Handle Talking About Climate Change

We have to prepare the next generation for a world with more natural disasters and threats to their health and safety.

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Our world’s quickly changing landscape due to climate change leaves most parents scrambling for how to discuss the future with our kids. As parents, it is our job to make sure that they feel safe and secure and to mitigate what kinds of gloom and doom they are exposed to. At the same time, it’s also our job to help our kids understand the way that climate change is impacting the Earth.

What does it mean that ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising? Why are there more droughts and fires and more severe weather? Will it continue? Will it get worse? It can be challenging to know how to answer difficult questions like these, especially because climate change is more dire than ever before.

As human inaction continues to take its devastating toll, it’s no longer effective to talk to kids about climate change with the rote, “It’s good to recycle!” In the 1980s and ’90s the crisis of the thinning ozone layer, which scientists learned was breaking down from pollutants, especially things like Chlorofluorocarbons, found mainly in aerosols, prompted people to toss their Aqua Net and switch to pump sprays. Message campaigns that graphically showed the impact on marine life of overflowing landfills and improperly discarded trash urged people to consider the importance of recycling, reducing trash, and not littering. Those efforts mattered and helped people understand the importance of making small changes in daily habits, but we’re well beyond a time of small, comfortable changes to address a swiftly warming planet.

There’s no wiggle room for failure today. Our government has repeatedly proven that it doesn’t take climate change seriously, and in fact, we currently have a man in the Oval Office railing against wind turbines, falsely claiming they cause cancer and rob people of the opportunity to watch TV on days without wind (of course this is not how wind technology actually works).

My eighth-grader can’t recall any of his science teachers ever pointedly talking about climate change, and there really are no widespread education programs about it. In some places, climate-change deniers actively work to keep discussions about global warming out of the classroom. Parents can’t rely on their child’s school to teach their kids about the climate crisis. The responsibility lies with us to take the lead and the timing couldn’t be more urgent.

We now know that we have as few as 12 years until we reach what scientists call “the point of no return”—the time in which the extreme weather, drought, and accompanying poverty that are inevitable effects of climate change, will make the earth a dire place for human life. That’s not just a hypothetical future for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren; it’s ours and our children’s looming, potentially doomed future.

Last year, Michelle Nijhuis, a scientist, science journalist, and a parent wrote for The Atlantic about how she balances her vast knowledge about climate change with what she shares with her daughter. Her daughter, now 10, has become a climate change activist in her own right. She and her friends recently became inspired by the young, Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who began speaking out about the climate crisis last year.

“Adults keep saying ‘we owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful,” Thunberg has said. “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” Her words and action have resulted in worldwide, weekly student walk-outs to demand that climate change be addressed now.

Pointing to key leaders, especially young people in the climate crisis movement can be very inspiring for kids. Nijhuis believes that letting her daughter choose when to talk about the topic and waiting for her to take lead was important.

After talking with parents about this difficult conversation, I’ve learned that most parents feel overwhelmed and conflicted about how to talk to their kids about climate change. Some parents expressed feeling like they didn’t talk enough about the climate crisis or didn’t know how they would talk about it when their kids were old enough to understand.

It seems like climate change experts would be the most fatalistic, considering what they know, but David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth and a new parent himself, wrote recently that he plans to tell his child that “further degradation isn’t inescapable, it is optional.” Oddly optimistic, Wallace-Wells wrote, “Those horrors are not yet scripted. We are staging them by inaction, and by action, can stop them.”

Whether it’s a script parents desperately need to cling to in order to keep from succumbing to paralyzing existential dread or a message that’s been carefully crafted to ensure the youngest generation feels there is something worth working for, lacing discussions about climate change with hope is essential when discussing the topic with children.

Here are some other key things to keep in mind while talking to kids:

Let your kids set the pace.

“My daughter, at seven and eight, whenever someone started talking about climate change she would literally want to leave the room,” says Nijhuis. “She had heard enough to know that it was something that was really worrisome to people, it was something that was gonna happen in the future, and it was a future that she was going to be living in… it was kind of like reading your child a very scary story at bedtime.”

A few years later, her daughter started asking pointed questions, wanting to know details about climate change and its impacts. “Once we learned more about it, it seemed less scary to me,” her daughter told her after watching a video about climate change. It turned out, as she got older, it was the mystery that was the scary thing.

At a young age, the concept of a warming planet, monstrous storms, and all of the risks that go along with our current environmental crisis can be really overwhelming for kids. Hell, it can be overwhelming for most adults. So, while parents are eager to instill environmental values in their children from an early age, it’s important to consider the implications of sharing too much too soon.

Laura Powell, a Washington state parent with two small children doesn’t shy away from going deeper in discussing climate change with her kids when they seem open to it. She says that she talks about climate change the same way that she talks about other issues like race and politics. “I pretty much go from the point of view that sheltering them from this, whatever it is racism, climate breakdown, politics, death, is not going to serve them in the long run. My job is to help them through the emotions and to deeply understand the truth about situations so that they can realize the current situation, learn the tools to cope with it and be ready to make lasting deep change. I will not lie to my kids. I also don’t force it too much,” she said.

That balance of honesty and not forcing the conversation too early or often doesn’t have a prescription as much as it hinges on parents being in tune with their kids. Let your kids know that you’re there when they want to talk, but let them choose the time and take the lead.

Listen carefully and dig beneath the surface.

Nijhuis’ daughter has caught her off guard with some tough questions. Like the time she asked, “Hey, they say we have 12 years left, you know, what if—what if we don’t fix it?” Nijhuis had to ask for some time to think about it. How do you honestly answer a question about the point of no return without imparting full-on panic?

For Nijhuis, she reflected on not only the need her child expressed for information, but she also looked deeper, past the question to assess what else her daughter was seeking. While parents want to give their kids truthful answers, Nijhuis says, “sometimes that’s not the priority.” She carefully considered her daughter’s need for information and her need for reassurance and told her:

“People say dramatic things because they want people to pay attention, and they want people to act. And there’s some truth to the fact that after 12 years, this is going to be much harder and there’s going to be more suffering. But, it’s not like after 12 years there’s a light switch that turns off or there’s a bomb that goes off and the planet blows up, you know, that—don’t be afraid of that.”

If parents can see the need for reassurance behind our kids’ needs for information, we can craft responses to their questions in ways that offer both.

Emphasize the opportunity.

As a parent, I struggle with what I know about climate change—about the greed, denial, and partisan politics that get in the way of making meaningful changes. With my teenagers, our conversations often center around how our government and legislators’ failure at working on alternatives and solutions to this problem long ago have resulted in sudden and overwhelming urgency. This comes up with my younger child, too, who wonders why we don’t have systems in place yet when we’ve long known that the industrial world is operating on finite resources.

Talking to kids about The Green New Deal and the work of newly elected progressives like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can not only offer kids hope that people are dedicated to fixing the problem, but it can also demonstrate the importance of voting with your values. Our kids are coming of age at a time where their votes and the activism they engage in will have a direct and massive global impact.

In addition to talking about legislation and voting and politics, a number of parents I talked to said that they keep the emphasis on smaller, everyday positive things that humans can do—things like recycling, composting, and reducing single-use plastics. “The intention is to care for the planet that supports our existence, without the doom that we are all aware of as adults,” said Melody Panice, a parent to three kids, ages 4, 10, and 13, living in Colorado.

Creative exploration of future possibilities with kids can also present a sense of hope and opportunity. “Hopefully in 20 years, we will have figured out a way to travel that’s way less polluting,” Nijhuis tells her daughter. “And, you know, who knows? Maybe we’ll be traveling to go camping in a completely different way.” Those “maybe’s” and wonderings are spaces that can lead to some wonderful imaginative play, where kids and parents can explore some ideas together.

Cultivate empathy.

While most parents are (rightfully) worried about upsetting their own child’s sense of security with too much dire information about climate change, it’s important for kids to understand that the biggest impacts will be felt by people who are the least responsible for climate change.

Poor people, those living in underdeveloped countries, migrants, refugees, and the homeless will be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as will the elderly, chronically ill, and disabled. “That’s a complicated point but it’s a good one to start making to kids about the differential impacts,” says Nijhuis. “As a side benefit, it can also reduce the fear. They’re not so bound up in what’s going to happen in their own lives. They start to look outwards and think okay, this is just something that we’ve got to deal with as a nation, as a planet.” This understanding can really help kids think outside of themselves and move toward a place of empathy and action.

Balance honesty with optimism.

An emerging issue in psychology is is a condition known as “ecoanxiety,” which involves high levels of stress over climate change. Ecoanxiety isn’t just a concern for adults; kids can be especially susceptible to excessive fears about things that are repeatedly presented with a fatalist message, like climate change. Even when parents are careful to balance their messages, kids can overhear news about the warming climate elsewhere, like on TV and the radio.

Like any overwhelming news topics, moderation is the key with kids. Mental health experts advise that parents limit kids’ exposure to news about climate change because of the anxieties and fears that the information without space to process it can cause for children.

Limiting exposure to gloom and doom messages is important, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest and impart hope. The key with talking to kids rests in the ability to hold the tension of offering information and balancing that information with reassurance.

In the end, giving kids too much information too early runs the risk of, “giving them literal or metaphorical nightmares, and giving them a sense of uncertainty at a time when what they really need is a sense of security,” says Nijhuis. But if we watch for cues and opportunities, we can help our children understand the immediacy and urgency of climate change while also offering hope. Carefully combined, this can help kids feel empowered to be a catalyst for change.

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