News of the coming environmental collapse has broken with unnerving regularity, and with each new tidbit — the Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of its oldest ice, global warming is making already-dramatic natural disasters more fierce, Europe’s climate disaster is growing, and October’s news that we have 12 years to limit climate-change catastrophe — my anxiety about the future grows.
But I’m far more worried about our kids.
They hear about our planet’s rising temperature and rapidly melting ice, giant islands of floating plastic, and the more than 16,000 animals threatened with extinction almost as much as we do, and they’re feeling the impact.
Conversations about threats to the environment and the plight of endangered species are not new for kids. And in Seattle, where I live, environmental stewardship and eco-consciousness are de rigueur: My children have been learning about conservation since preschool. Reusable bags, water bottles and compost bins in homes and public places have been part of the fabric of our lives for years. Children here can participate in beach cleanups with their classes; in my kids’ school, they separate compost from recyclables and garbage — last month, they even weighed it classroom by classroom to measure their sorting success.
But the tone has shifted. The feeling is more dire. I don’t know what kids are supposed to do with the sobering fact that their planet is changing for the worse.
According to Laura Kastner, a clinical psychologist and professor in the psychology department and the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, the way to teach kids about environmental issues is not by overwhelming them with data or presenting them with projected outcomes they can see no way of changing. It’s by being realistic with kids and also teaching them agency and action.
It’s what Kastner describes as the “both-and.” The idea of first acknowledging that, yes, climate change is happening, and there are things we can do to help. “We really are going to have to deal with this, and there is so much to do, so let’s get to work,” she said. “We want to be responsible and smart and informed about what’s happening, and we want to be hopeful and agentic.”
Heather Price, an atmospheric chemist, climate scientist and chemistry instructor at North Seattle College, who has presented climate science to members of Congress, says that whenever she gives a talk about rising temperatures, ocean acidification and mass extinctions, she always spends at least a quarter of her time discussing the areas where scientists see hope and how people are already altering the trajectory. For example, the capacity of renewable energy in the United Kingdom has surpassed that of fossil fuels for the first time, and in the United States, electric car sales were up 81 percent in 2018 over sales in 2017. Price knows the science is depressing. “But,” she says, “it’s not on the science side where the good things are happening. It’s on the mitigation, on the solutions.”
It’s possible to be straightforward about climate change with our children and protect their emotional well-being. Here are some ways to help children be part of the team that mitigates the impact of climate change, so they don’t have to despair over the future.
Don't overdo the news
Kastner recommends news in moderation. Although adults may want to watch and listen to the news, a little goes a long way for children. “There’s a difference between being prepared and being overwhelmed, especially for kids,” she said. “I don’t want them to feel hopeless.”
The news cycle can be too much, especially if a child is sensitive. “When you have anxious kids watching the TV or anxious families . . . you literally see an uptick in kids’ anxiety,” she says. “When parents do doom and gloom and watch TV a lot, they’re hurting their children.” It’s the responsibility of parents and caregivers to regulate their kids’ media consumption; they simply do not need to know everything.
Know your child
As in all areas of parenting, it’s up to caregivers to assess how much their kid can take. “If you know your child is more anxious than the next kid or has a sensitive temperament, you have to parent differently,” Kastner says. “It’s not so much about keeping kids away from every bit of information” about rising temperatures and extinction, it’s that “you handle it differently. You change the words depending on their age, their sophisticationand what we think they can handle — what they need.”
When Price visits middle schools to give climate talks to eighth-grade classes, she engages them with activities tailored for their age. “I take methane and make bubbles and then we light them on fire; we put ice in buckets.” With kids, she says, you have to “make it fun and talk about hope, kind of inspire them.” These students , she discovered, really like Teslas, “so I talk with them about how by the time they’re my age, they’re probably going to be driving a car more like a Tesla.”
At home or in school, parents and educators can pair environmental studies with actionable steps such as having kids organize a challenge to increase the number of students and faculty bringing reusable bottles to school. They can research how many species have thrived under the Endangered Species Act or find a way to compost cafeteria scraps. Inviting children to brainstorm strategies for progress helps energize and give them hope. Families can support an environmental organization, plan a park cleanup or host a bake sale to raise money for habitat preservation of a kid’s favorite endangered animal.
“Part of depression,” Kastner explains, “is hopelessness and helplessness. . . . When you are agentic, when you are the one to go get the blue tarps [after a hurricane] and hand them out, you’re always going to do better than if you’re sitting there waiting for the tarps.”
Price agrees: “It’s all about framing: How am I going to act, what am I going to do?”
Price’s mantra is that “action feeds hope feeds action feeds hope. Because without hope, you’re not going to have action, without action, you’re not going to have hope. They feed each other.”
Manage what you can manage
None of us will be able to make a dent in all aspects of climate change on our own, but we can break down the issues into bite-size, manageable pieces. We can explore the many ways in which we can change outcomes, whether that’s supporting science and tech to help manage rising sea levels, getting involved in politics to protect those who have to leave flooded land, or helping physically move displaced people.
“Seeing how quickly humans can transition” is what encourages Price. For example, she says, “the price to install solar back in 1977 when Star Wars first came out was $77 per watt, and today, depending in which state you live, it’s anywhere from 10 cents to 20 cents per watt.” And, in Seattle, because of hydroelectric energy and solar and wind farms, almost no electricity is coming from coal, oil or gas, making it one of the greenest cities for electricity, she says.
And there are young leaders such as 16-year old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, named one of Time magazine’s most influential teens of 2018. After grabbing international headlines for striking from school to draw attention to Sweden’s unprecedented heat waves and growing struggle with wildfires, she confronted world leaders about global inaction on climate change, telling representatives from the nearly 200 nations gathered at COP24, the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “I’ve learned you are never too small to make a difference. And if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not going to school, then imagine what we could all do together if we really wanted to.”
We are entering a new environmental era, and parents can guide children through this time by acknowledging that climate changecan be frightening and helping kids take action.
“What’s important,” Kastner says, “is that parents know how much they matter in this.” They aren’t sticking their heads in the sand; they know what challenges await their children. But when parents decide “that they’re going to plant trees, and they’re going to volunteer at the school to do cleanup, and they’re going to be activated by this, then their kids are going to do better.”
As daunting as climate change might be, we do have a choice about how to use our energy — even worried, anxious energy. We don’t have to wait to be rescued. We can show our children that we can choose hope and empowerment. We can be the ones who hand out the blue tarps.
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