When my daughter was four or five years old, she overheard her older brother say something along the lines of, “We’re destroying the planet.”
She furrowed her little brow and looked up at us. “But not this planet, right?” she asked.
I thought that my heart had already broken for the climate on the January day I spotted a bright purple crocus emerging from the ground. But having to reveal to my child that we only have one planet, and we need to do a much better job of protecting it, was exponentially more painful.
She is nine now, old enough to understand that changes in how we experience the seasons — like the fact that she went all winter without the chance to debut her new snowsuit — are indicators of a bigger, more ominous phenomenon.
Melissa Burt is the mother of a seven-year-old daughter. She is also a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University and a part of Science Moms, a group of climate activists.
“We always think as parents that they don’t know what we’re talking about, but they actually are hearing what we’re saying and they’re internalising those feelings,” Prof Burt told HuffPost.
While we don’t want to hide the seriousness of threats like climate change from our children, we can frame the information in ways that leave the door open for hope.
HuffPost asked several scientists and environmental activists who also happen to be parents for tips on how to talk to kids about these issues.
1. Spend time in nature with your kids
Renowned environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, who has spent his career writing about threats to the environment and potential solutions, doesn’t see any benefit in broaching such topics with younger children.
“My thought is always that up to a certain age, we shouldn’t be talking about the climate crisis. The first job is to get kids to fall in love with the natural world, and it’s hard and scary to fall in love with someone or something that you see as possibly terminally ill,” McKibben told HuffPost.
Dr Lisa Patel is the executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, a paediatrician and mother of two kids, ages five and eight. She is also a part of Science Moms.
“I think it’s a good place for all of us to begin, to be connected to what you want to save,” she said.
As kids get older and you do start to talk to them about threats to the environment, they will have a better understanding of what is at stake and how it connects to their life.
2. Limit exposure to media coverage of disasters
“What we typically say in paediatrics is to limit your child’s media consumption when it comes to disasters like wildfires and floods,” said Dr Patel.
She explained: “It really does increase their anxiety and stress, and it doesn’t produce much that’s constructive for a child that’s trying to understand the world.”
While you don’t need to avoid the topic, keeping their media consumption to a minimum can prevent their worries from spiralling out.
3. Examine your own feelings
Many parents have anxieties about climate change. For a lot of us, having children has heightened our sense of urgency and galvanised us to take action on these issues.
But it’s important that we acknowledge our own feelings, both for ourselves and for our kids, who are probably picking up on them already.
“They’re very perceptive about what we feel, and so I think it’s really important for us as parents to check in with ourselves, find where we feel overwhelmed or if we feel hopeless, and then [find] the things that give us hope,” said Dr Patel.
“Start yourself by finding those things that give you hope and community and then share those with your kids.”
4. Allow them to express their fears and find ways to take action
“One of the things we have to acknowledge when we talk about climate change, first and foremost, is people’s feelings,” said Dr Patel.
Giving your kids space to talk about their fears will give you the information you need to reassure them most effectively.
“Emotions are real, fear is real,” said Prof Burt. She suggested giving kids a variety of options when it comes to ways to express their feelings, such as having conversations, making works of art or participating in school projects.
“I really love the idea of getting kids to come together and to think about it, and especially as a family unit, or as a neighbourhood challenge,” Prof Burt said.
“[By] getting them to think about what they can do, I think you can move from fear or anxiety to action,” she continued. As a family, you can create a plan for how you are going to limit your own carbon footprint. You might decide to switch out your lightbulbs, replace a gas stove, ride your bikes more often or eat more plant-based food.
“The first job is to get kids to fall in love with the natural world, and it’s hard and scary to fall in love with someone or something that you see as possibly terminally ill.”
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You don’t have to go vegan to cut down on the amount of meat your family consumes, for example. Be realistic, Prof Burt advises, and focus on what’s best for your own family, which will be different than what other families are doing.
McKibben stressed that the actions need to be authentic: “Once kids are of an age, I think it’s key that they have something to do. And since kids’ BS detectors are better than those on adults, it’s important that it not be something token: young people have played a huge role in the climate movement in recent years, and done it bravely and with verve.”
5. Learn together about environmental challenges and potential solutions
Science Moms has a list of resources, including books, podcasts and videos, you can explore with your children.
For small children who you want to help learn to love the planet, McKibben has a picture book, “We Are Better Together,” published last year.
The websites of the following organisations also offer tips for how to talk to kids about climate change and other resources:
6. Offer positive examples
It can feel like any news regarding the environment is full of doom, but Prof Burt and Dr Patel say there are examples of changes being made. Dr Patel mentions sizeable federal funding for electric school buses as one recent sign of progress.
“The fumes coming out of [diesel] buses — it’s essentially like smoking a cigarette,” explains Dr Patel. “There’s actually a new study out that shows that if we switched to electric, we would boost kids’ attendance in school by 1.3 million attendance days. This has a real impact on kids’ health.”
Another idea that kids will have the context to grasp is the opportunity to make our homes more energy efficient. The Inflation Reduction Act provides a source of funding for consumers looking to make environmentally friendly changes to their homes, such as by switching to electric or induction stovetops.
Prof Burt said the Clean Air Act offers an example of change that has proven to make a difference. “It’s been a few decades since that came, and we have seen dramatic reductions in air pollution,” she said.
These are examples of legislation on the national level, but Prof Burt and Dr Patel say there are plenty of state and local measures to mention as well.
7. Strike a hopeful note
Prof Burt and Dr Patel use kid-friendly language and focus on the potential for action when explaining climate change to their children.
Dr Patel said she might define it like this: “The world is changing because we burn fossil fuels, and Mommy is worried about it, and so Mommy works really hard to get rid of fossil fuels so we can breathe cleaner air and have a healthier planet.”
Prof Burt says that when she’s talking to her daughter, “I try to give her reassurance in a couple of different ways. One, that things are going to be OK, we are going to survive . . . But also the reassurance that people are working really hard to try to solve the problem. And because humans have contributed to that problem, humans can also help solve [it].”
As her kids grow and mature, Dr Patel explained, “they come back to me with questions and their understanding gets more sophisticated.” The focus then can move to actions the child can take and activism they can get involved in.
8. Find community
Dr Patel cites a study showing that most Americans vastly underestimate how much others worry about climate change.
“Why is that gap there? I think it’s because we don’t talk enough,” said Dr Patel. She recommends Science Moms’ conversation guide as a resource for people who want to start discussions about climate change in their communities.
Talking to other parents can help if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. It’s also a great way to brainstorm solutions that you can work on together, whether that’s starting a composting program in your school’s cafeteria or a letter-writing campaign to your elected officials.
“Find your people. We are social creatures, and problems like this one are best solved when we work in community,” Dr Patel said.
“It can feel overwhelming if you’re by yourself, but we can tackle it if we work together with others.”