How do you tell kids the truth about climate change without increasing their anxiety? It's something Jonathan and I wrestle with as our girls get older. On the one hand, we really want to have kids that know the truth about the world. On the other hand, we don’t want to make them anxious and stressed all the time by giving them more information than they can handle. As each year passes, we’re learning how to do this better. Our hope is that we can help them turn their natural passions and interests into action and that they learn to have hope no matter what’s happening in the world.
Our kids are learning about climate change in school, as they should. We want our daughters to know what’s going on. At the same time, it’s caused a lot of increased anxiety for them over the last few years. We love to go the beach and the lake and when we’re there, we talk about what they’ve heard: there’s a giant island of floating plastic. There’s pollution that is killing the coral reefs. Temperatures are rising and killing off entire species. Whales and turtles are getting stuck in nets and drowning.
It can seem so big, the fact that the world is too hot and everything is changing.
We don’t want to shield our kids from climate change but we don’t want to overwhelm them. Here are some things we’ve learned to do:
- Talk to kids honestly in age-appropriate ways. You can start small, letting them know that we don’t leave trash on the ground or why we recycle. As they get older, the issues get bigger and their understanding of how to deal with it changes too. In middle school, kids are able to understand the social concepts about why some people don’t care as much as they do about climate change. We’ve tried to talk honestly about what they’re hearing in the classroom, what they learn from their friends, and what we think is important. Nature documentaries help—there’s nothing we love more than a good nature show as a family. After telling you the interesting facts about a species or a region, they almost always end with the fact that the polar bears or dolphins or hoopoes you just watched are in danger. We try to tell our kids the truth—things are changing and we really care about the world around us.
- When it comes to climate change, focusing on small things can make a difference. The world is falling apart is way too much for little ones to take in. Instead, focus on specific issues and talk to them about what you’re doing already to help. For example: “We don’t leave our car on during the school pickup line because idling cars aren’t good for the environment!” or “We always throw our plastic in the recycle bin because we really care about keeping plastic out of the ocean” or “Our family likes reusable sandwich bags because it’s good for the world!” Showing them the small things you do every day can help them feel like they’re already doing something.
- Give them ways to help. Whether taking cans to the recycling bin or holding a fundraiser to help efforts to save a local endangered salamander, whatever their age, kids can take action now. Turning their anxiety into action is one of the best tools you can give your kids to help with whatever worry comes their way.
- Follow their lead. As our girls have grown into their love for the ocean, that’s become a big family focus for us. Over the years, we’re learning together about how people are turning nets that were in the ocean in Honduras into bridges, how entire communities are working to clean up beaches, about the new technology targeting the plastic island in the ocean. Our kids care about this issue and we try to go with them—when they want to learn more and talk more, we follow through.
- End with hope. Honestly, as adults, climate change sometimes can feel hopeless. And you don’t want to be overly chipper, especially not with older kids. “Everything is fine!” from you rings false. They’re smart—they know. But at the same time, there are reasons to hope and their generation—brilliant, engaged, thoughtful, caring, full of energy—is one of the biggest reasons. We try to balance sad stories and scary facts with hopeful moments. Recently we showed our girls this video from the Great Whale Conservancy about a young humpback whale who was helped by people in a boat to be set free from a net that trapped it. The video was so sweet and the whale’s relationship with the people made us all happy. Those moments mean a lot to us as adults—they’re important for our kids, too.
Loving our kids means preparing them for the realities of life, not shielding them. Helping them understand and deal with climate change in age-appropriate ways can be difficult, but it’s really important. We want their natural anxieties to become opportunities for action. That way, we’re giving them hope. And honestly, we’re bringing hope to us all.
(Photo Source: Unknown scientific illustration)