Of all the tough conversations we should be having with our kids as they grow up, I’ll admit that educating my son about climate change has not exactly been a priority. We’ve had conversations about death, disability, mental illness, racism, sexism, poverty and gun violence. All of those felt like important, pressing matters that he already has seen or experienced or could be exposed to at any point.
Climate change has felt like a problem that is farther off in the distance, or at the very least, like something he doesn’t need to know about quite yet.
But I need to stop thinking that way. This needs attention right now.
I read this article in my local newspaper, which says that in 60 years, the climate where we live in eastern Pennsylvania will more closely represent the “humid, subtropical climes” of Jonesboro, Arkansas. Our winters will get wetter as our summers get drier. Our dairy cows will produce less milk. Our ability to produce (and export) electricity will suffer.
All of this will happen by the time my son is in his 60s and my (theoretical) grandchildren are my age. Suddenly, it feels impossible not to address it with him.
Still, like with any large, complex and anxiety-producing topic such as this, it’s not the sort of thing you spring on them one day with something like, “So, I think it’s time to tell you how we’re destroying the world for your generation.” Instead, it’s a topic you can start to address while they’re young and build upon as they get older and develop an ability to understand the issue on a deeper level.
(Oh, and don’t wait for them to learn about it in school. According to a 2016 report in Science Magazine, the median teacher only devotes 1-2 hours on the topic — and what they teach might not be totally accurate anyway.)
Start with the basics
No need to jump straight to scary statistics. Kids can start to understand how human actions affect nature as they learn a few basics. Talk about how the gasses we breathe out are the same gasses that plants breathe in (and vice versa). Talk about how we use the same water and air over and over, and how important it is for both to stay clean in order for all creatures — and the planet — to be healthy.
Help them develop a love of nature by regularly hiking, camping, gardening and reading about subjects like animals, oceans and forests. As they get older and can begin to understand the difference between “weather” and “climate” and start to form their own questions, you can introduce age-appropriate resources, such as NASA’s Climate Kids website.
Be honest but optimistic
Once kids are old enough to have a basic understanding of climate change, focus on the positives, even if you don’t feel particularly positive yourself. Explain that the first step to solving any problem is realising there is a problem; and thanks to many dedicated scientists, we have a lot of solid information that can help us begin to turn things around.
Emphasise that it’s not too late and lots of grown-ups are working together around the world to solve this problem. Focus on the little things your family can do at home to support those efforts.
Get them involved
Kids are naturally wired to want to help and taking some kind of action can give them hope and a sense of empowerment over the issue.
Plant a tree together to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. Help them write a personal letter to members of parliament. Teach them about the importance of rainforests and offer a few suggestions for how they can prevent deforestation (here is a great list of ideas from the Rainforest Alliance).
Model environmentally conscious behaviour
Like with most things in parenting, one of the most effective ways to influence our kids is by modelling the behaviour we wish to see from them. That includes the obvious, like recycling, using second-hand or reusable goods, turning off the lights when you leave a room, lowering your thermostat and reducing the amount you drive.
But also make sure to show your kids what civic engagement looks like. Support green-space initiatives in your community and let your kids hear you call your representatives to weigh in on environmental policy. Model for them the importance of everyone taking ownership of the issue by doing your part in your home, in your community, and on a larger national and global scale.