Children Influence Their Parents' Opinions on Climate Change

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A study has found that kids exposed to climate change science at school use it to convince their parents of the issue's urgency.

Before 16-year-old Greta Thurnberg began her now-famous climate activism, skipping school on Fridays to sit in front of the Swedish parliament with a sign that read, "School Strike for Climate," she started with her parents. She presented facts and documentaries, sharing everything she'd learned, until they relented and acknowledged the truth in what she'd said. Greta told the Guardian, "After a while, they started listening to what I actually said. That’s when I realized I could make a difference."

It turns out, parents aren't as set in their ways as one might think, and a child can be a profound influencer. A new study from the University of North Carolina, published May 6 in Nature Climate Change journal, set out to discover just how effective children are at changing their parents' minds – and the answer is very.

For the study, researchers asked teachers to incorporate climate change studies into their curriculum. Prior to the study starting, 238 students and 292 parents completed a survey to determine their level of concern about climate change. Participants were divided into a control and an experiment group, and the latter was given the new climate change material at school. Following the two-year test period, all participants completed another survey to see if anything had changed. Concern about climate change was measured on a 17-point scale, ranging from -8 (not concerned at all) to +8 (extremely concerned).

The researchers found that children do bring home what they've learned at school and communicate it to their parents, engaging in ways that spur parents to reconsider their views. This is partly due to the trust that exists between parents and children, making it easier to talk about an emotionally-charged issue such as climate change. Over the years, both the control and experimental groups developed more concern about climate change, but the change was most pronounced in families where children were taught the curriculum.

"Notably, liberal and conservative parents in the treatment group ended up with similar levels of climate change concern by the end of the study. The 4.5 point gap in the pretest shrunk to 1.2 after children learned about climate change." (via Eurekalert)

Curiously, the people who showed the greatest attitude change were fathers, conservative families, and parents of daughters. The reason for daughters having more impact than sons is unknown, but it's thought that perhaps young girls are more effective communicators than boys or were more concerned about the issue to begin with. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe expressed delight at this finding:

"As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities, I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds."

Children are effective advocates because they are not weighed down by the burden of preconceived notions, the pressure of community-held views, and entrenched personal identities. They're a clean slate, willing to absorb radical new information and pass it on with enthusiasm.

The findings offer consolation and hope at a time when we desperately need it. In the words of lead study author Danielle Lawson, "If we can promote this community-building and conversation-building on climate change, we can come together and work together on a solution." Now this seems more possible than ever.