Written by: Sarah Spengeman PhD More of us are coming to recognize the growing effects climate change is having on our everyday lives. My daughter is only three and a half, but already I have had to tell her several times that nearby fires have made the air too unhealthy for her to play outside. Each time I’ve had to tell her that, it hurts my heart. But, for me, there is hope in knowing that I am telling her – and teaching her – so much more than that.
I am telling her stories of people in every country who are building healthy and just communities where all children can fulfill their full potential. I trust these stories will ground and guide her as she learns more about how a small group of people, motivated by greed, have hurt our precious planet.
As the climate crisis worsens, many parents are struggling with how to talk about it with their kids of all ages. But we must find ways to do so. We have a responsibility to provide our children with the knowledge and skills they need to not only survive, but actually to thrive in this new reality.
As we navigate these challenging times for families, here are five strategies to ground our conversations about climate change with our children in meaningful ways that create connections and foster resilience:
Strategy One: Rest
Our kids, particularly our youngest, need us to provide for all of their needs – both physical and emotional. As any caregiver knows, this can be exhausting. As human beings faced with unprecedented environmental changes that are devastating people and ecosystems, it is completely normal to feel our own anxiety and grief. Unless we have the support we need ourselves, we cannot meet our children’s needs for guidance and stability.
So, parents: know that helping children navigate climate change means taking care of ourselves. Are you connected to other parents working on climate change? Are you finding spiritual sustenance in meditation, walks in nature, or with your religious congregation? Are you talking to a therapist or a mentor? Are you regularly asking for help from friends or family so you can get the rest you need?
As you do, remember two things: First, you will be in a stronger position to guide your children in this crisis if you make time for rest and renewal. Second, your children watch everything you do. By taking time for your own restorative practice, whatever it is, you are modeling that vital skill for your kids. The self-awareness and the care for your own internal resources that you are demonstrating will be an invaluable practice that they will certainly need in the years to come.
Strategy Two: Listen
As a parent, you know what your child is ready for. My daughter is still worried about what time mommy will pick her up from preschool and is not yet ready to learn that we are in the midst of a climate crisis. Watch and listen to your children to consider how best to introduce conversations about climate change. What are they noticing about the world around them? What are they fascinated by? What causes them anxiety? What empowers them? What are they hearing or learning at school?
Start from a position of taking a keen interest in where your children are at, and use what you see and hear to find your entry points for discussion and shared learning. Right now, my daughter is curious about everything. We take nature walks and observe all of the plants and animals around us. We are also learning all about animal families, so she knows animals have emotions just like we do. As I impart to her a sense of awe and wonder about the natural world, I hope this sense will later fuel her desire to care for our Earth. In small ways, I am showing her how to take care of the Earth now too. I talk to her about why we recycle and we pick up trash when we see it. These are just small entry points, but as she is ready for more, we will continue the conversation. As you discover your child’s interests, take time to learn together. If, like me, you are not a scientist, there are tremendous opportunities to learn about ecosystems with your children and talk about how we can protect them.
Strategy Three: Stories
Stories hold incredible power to communicate about climate change for people of all ages. Human beings’ brains are wired for stories and lessons told through stories are more impactful, and more likely to be remembered. Thankfully, there is no shortage of beautiful, inspiring stories of children and youth who are healing our communities and our planet. For little children, share stories of characters working together to protect the places, people, and creatures they love, and to build a better future for all species. We’ve been reading The Snail and the Whale, which tells the story of a tiny snail who uses her unique abilities to rally children to help save an enormous whale! Older children may find courage reading about the Climate Rebels around the globe who are taking a stand to protect our common home.
When you read stories together you are exercising your imaginations, and this ability to imagine a more just, more sustainable society is a skill that will serve our children well growing up in a world that desperately needs transformation.
Whatever the age, find stories that demonstrate courage and resilience, and read them together as a family. Talk about how the story made you feel and what similarities you see in your own community.
Strategy Four: Community
You are not alone! Human beings are social animals, and we need a network of supportive, trusting relationships to thrive. Children are no different. Forced isolation has been one of the most painful aspects of the pandemic. But we can still love and be with one another even if it might look different than in other times. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a community of like-minded people who are lovingly traveling through the world together with care for others and the natural world. That might be your religious community, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be your network of friends, family, and neighbors. Our preschool shares family outings and works on food collection projects together. You can join your local Moms for Clean Air Force or Mothers Out Front chapters and meet other families advocating for clean air and climate solutions.
The supportive village we create can model the kind of political and social systems we are striving to build at a larger scale. Other adults, or even older youth in your village, share your responsibility for modeling action for better communities to your children. Community also helps your child understand that while climate change can be scary, they are never alone. When the going gets tough, or a climate disaster hits, a community is better able to weather the storm and rebuild than any one individual on their own. That is why a loving community is the foundation for hope.
Strategy Five: Act
Last but not least, conversations about climate change can’t be just talk. The anxiety our young people are feeling comes from watching adults neglect their duty to keep us all safe from toxic pollution and extreme weather events. Our kids need to see the adults in their lives acting to solve climate change. We need to teach them not just why climate change is happening, but the many ways we can all create healthy homes and neighborhoods. To prevent despair, children need to be empowered and have a sense that no matter how small, every person can make a difference.
So many adults feel overwhelmed by climate change–and with good reason. It can feel insurmountable. But showing your children that they are an essential part of a larger movement for climate justice will empower them. Start local where it's easiest to see the near-term effects of your actions. Work with local naturalists on habitat restoration. Join a community garden. Arrange a trash pick up with your child’s class. Even small children can explain to their mayor or city council why they want more and safer walking and bike paths. Start or join a mutual aid hub to support greater community resilience. And don’t forget to ask your child for their own ideas about how to care for the local environment.
Be in community.
It’s clear we have already done so much damage to our climate, and no one can be sure what the future will look like for our kids. As a mom, I fear for our kids’ future. But I also know that when we engage in these five practices for and with our children, we are cultivating resilient human beings who will have the skills they need to experience love, community, empowerment, and hope.
Want to learn more about parenting amidst climate change? These are tremendous resources:
How to talk to your kids about climate change. Turning angst into action, Harriet Shugarman
Growing sustainable together, Shannon Brescher Shea
Sarah Spengeman PhD. is a professional climate change communicator and the host of the Hot Mamas podcast, where she shines a light on the many ways moms are creating a livable planet where all children can thrive.