How to talk to kids about climate change
How do you even begin to address an issue as monumental as the impacts of climate change? Walking a fine line between being well-informed about the planet and just damn terrified of living in a drowned or scorched world is key for children to move into the future with hope in their hearts.
In the interests of not inciting pure panic in our little ones, we gathered some pearls of wisdom from a range of educated folk about how they talk to kids about climate change in their everyday lives.
The environmental scientist:
Adelaide-based environmental scientist and polar adventurer Tim Jarvis has seen the very obvious effects of climate change with his own eyes while observing melting glaciers in Antarctica. As a father of two boys aged six and eight, he is aware of how important it is to involve children in the climate change conversation. “I think the key with kids is that you don’t want to completely sugar-coat things or pretend that climate change doesn’t exist, but equally you don’t want to panic them,” Tim says.
Focusing on things that they can do to be a part of the solution, Tim harnesses his children’s curiosity and desire to be involved in household tasks to educate them on tangible, everyday things that can be linked to the environment, such as water use. “My kids are quite good record keepers and list makers, so they keep an eye on our water tanks and tell us what levels the tanks are at. They are quite interested to see how much they ebb and flow with how long a shower Mum takes or how much garden watering I do. They’re interested in seeing the numbers go up and down. So I can start to talk to them about water use and the impacts on the planet,” he says.
With the introduction of pocket money, Tim’s eldest son is starting to understand the concept of money and the things people do to the planet in pursuit of profit. “Kids pick up a heck of a lot more than people think. My eldest now understands that people chop trees down to make money from the land and that this is having an impact on the planet,” Tim says. By involving his sons in fun tasks like tree planting, gardening and water-tank monitoring, he has opened up conversations about climate change with his kids—and perhaps even created another generation of environmental scientists.
The climate change champions:
Encouraging her daughter to “think from the heart about what is right and wrong”, Montana-based activist Kandi Mossett—lead organiser with the Extreme Energy & Just Transition Campaign of the Indigenous Environmental Network and leading water protector at Standing Rock—is very much at the frontline of environmental protection. At home, though, Kandi keeps things simple by integrating environmental messages into her three-year-old daughter’s everyday life. Telling American sustainability organisation the Sightline Institute that everything from working in community gardens to participating in recycling programs helps her demonstrate how to care for the planet, Kandi comments: “I explain to my three-year-old daughter why Native Americans often talk about ‘Mother Earth’ and make the parallels between how caretakers take care of their children and how our planet, in a very similar way, takes care of us by providing the food we need to eat, the water we need to drink and the air we need to breathe. Once they grasp this concept, it’s easy for them to see how smoke coming out of coal-fired power plants makes the air dirty and thereby hard for us to breathe.”
Also in the US, Dr Sarah Myhre balances being a postdoctoral scholar with the Future of Ice Initiative and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington with being a mother to a three-year-old boy. She cites emotional transparency as an important element in all conversations around climate change with children, yet admits she is often challenged by the levels of loss and grief she has to process while working in the field. Speaking to the Sightline Institute, Sarah makes the case for love leading the way: “In a future of climate warming, there are a lot of things at risk … things that are really scary when you contemplate the kinds of sacrifices that are down the road for us. But here’s the thing: in that future, we will still be family. We will still love each other. The things that make life worth living will still be here, and nothing can take them away. I think every parent intuitively knows that through loving one another, through loving our children and our family, we have the power to transcend and heal the world. We have an immense opportunity to demonstrate the values of hope and integrity to our children.”
Melbourne primary school teacher Tim Melching knows a thing or two about communicating with children. While he believes that climate change is quite a complicated concept to convey to children (especially younger kids), he’s found some useful ways to keep his students informed about what’s happening around the planet.
“The concept of the global effect of climate change is almost too big for children to understand, but putting climate change in terms of things that children are sympathetic to is a good way to make those links and capture their attention,” says Tim. Citing the plight of animals and wildlife as a popular talking point with children, he has been able to talk about climate change’s impact on the planet by showing how it affects animals. Why palm-oil plantations and deforestation is bad for orangutans, how the changing sea temperatures negatively impact the lives of polar bears and sea turtles—animals are the Trojan horse Tim uses to capture the attention of his students.
Talking about other kids is another way to get children thinking. “A lot of kids can’t get past their immediate world sometimes, but most are very compassionate, especially towards other children,” says Tim. Channelling his student’s compassion for other children by introducing fictional books or true stories about children facing challenges in other parts of the world has enabled Tim to talk about the effects of climate change to older children of reading age. For example, a book called A Long Walk to Water tells the story of the drought and refugee crisis in Sudan from the eyes of two children. “I know this sounds bad, but kids don’t have as much sympathy for adults because they believe adults have all the answers and can take care of everything,” says Tim. “They are more likely to care about the plight of other children their age.”
Dr Nicole Woodhouse is a clinical psychologist who is passionate about working with young people. Working at Melbourne’s Birch Psychology, the mother of two believes that honest, thoughtful conversations about climate change can be impactful if delivered in a careful way to children when they are mature enough to learn about it.
“Conversations about climate change can be difficult for young minds to grasp, and difficult concepts paired with distressing content can lead a child to feeling overwhelmed,” explains Nicole. “I try to teach my kids about climate change by matching the content of my answers to their age and level of understanding. I try to speak in an honest but tempered way to ensure they are getting accurate information, but I avoid sharing unnecessary information that could leave them anxious or distressed.”
Television and radio news bulletins can be distressing for young children, so Nicole and her husband avoid watching the news with their kids, and also avoid talking about particularly distressing events in front of their children. Of course, children are bound to hear about natural disasters like floods, bushfires and the bleaching of coral reefs at some stage, and Nicole believes that letting kids steer the discussion is key.
“I let my kids lead the conversation and I try to think about these events from their perspective. What might distress our adult mind can be downright terrifying to little minds that don’t have concepts of distance or time yet,” says Nicole. “Kids are still learning about their emotions, let alone what to do when they feel strong emotions like fear, anger or despair. They easily become confused about the facts and the extent of the threat, and their developing minds are not yet able to engage in abstract thought, so they tend to interpret things quite literally. While the flood might be over 2,500km away in Queensland … in their mind it’s about to be in their backyard and they are scared about what might happen.”
Nicole believes that hooking into topics that interest your children is a good way to start conversations around climate change. A child asking about the origins of electricity can lead to a conversation about fossil fuels and renewable energy and the role that solar panels on houses and wind turbines on farms play in renewable energy production.
With caring for the environment woven into the fabric of her family’s everyday life, Nicole ensures that small acts snowball into bigger conversations. Riding bikes or scooters to school, having waste-free lunches, using canvas shopping bags, composting food scraps—these are the small ways kids learn about protecting the environment. “The kids are now old enough that they love it when they catch either my husband or me leaving a light on in an unused room,” she says.
Above all, Nicole and her husband endeavour to keep fear at bay by instilling hope in their children. “Things that frighten us can immobilise us or leave us feeling powerless to make a difference. I want my kids to know that taking care of the environment and addressing climate change starts with all of us … that they can be active participants in making a difference to the environment and that each act, no matter how big or small, helps to make a positive difference. As a psychologist, I know that little people watch everything parents do. Setting a good example ourselves sets up behavioural habits in our kids that will serve them and our planet well,” she says.
Wisdom for talking to kids about climate change from Sightline Institute:
- Connect new ideas to familiar ones. Just like parents care for kids, Mother Earth provides us with shelter and food; good guys stopping bad guys; cleaning up messes; following the rules.
- Model good behaviour. Recycling, yes, but also listening, empathy, responsibility and civic engagement.
- Look and learn! Observe what’s around us: birds, bikes, buildings, buses. Kids know stinky exhaust from fresh air.
- Be part of the solution. From recycling, planting trees and conserving water to riding bikes
or scooters to school, packing waste- free lunches, using canvas shopping bags, and composting food scraps.
- Encourage and engage with community. Show we’re part of something bigger. “We” not “me, me, me!” Celebrate the joys and duties of being a community member.
- Reinforce kids’ moral compasses. Kids know right from wrong. Show them how we can stand up to bullies, fight for racial justice and take care of one another.
- Empower and amplify! Kids’ imagination and energy are inspiring. Young voices are a powerful reminder of our collective conscience.