How to Talk to Kids About Climate Change

©. K Martinko

The last thing I want is for my kids to feel frightened and pessimistic about the future. More than anything, I want them to love Earth.

It’s a hard time to be a parent. Then again, maybe every parent has felt this way at some point. But right now, as an environmental writer who often feels like I'm drowning in negative news about the state of our planet, it’s tough to feel hopeful. I look at my young school-aged kids and wonder what kind of world they will inherit.

Hardest of all is knowing what to tell them. I’m all in favor of transparency and truthfulness, but I don’t wish to frighten them just as they’re beginning to comprehend the wonders of the natural world. My own opinions have been formed by years of reading, talking, and learning, but there’s no way they can wrap their little minds around that information.

I like the way in which Peter Kalmus puts it in his soon-to-be-published book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution:

“I’ve never sat down with my boys and said, ‘So, kids, time for you to know about global warming.’ Instead, I try to live a life that’s informed by my knowledge and acceptance of global warming, a life that’s consistent with my values. If my boys ask me something, I answer as honestly as I can. I certainly never go out of my way to scare them, but I don’t lie to them either.”

Similarly, my husband and I do not speak about it directly – not yet, at least – nor do we avoid the topic. Our priority is to cultivate an attitude of love and respect for the natural world, with general awareness of certain problems, in the hopes that it will spur them to want to protect the planet as they grow older. We do this in the following ways:

We spend as much time outside as possible.

I believe wholeheartedly that one must learn to love nature in order to want to preserve it; and the best way to do that is by cultivating a personal relationship with the forests, lakes, flora, and fauna that live around us. We spend at least two hours outside each day after school, usually in our yard or a neighborhood park. Sometimes we walk to the beach or take a hike on a trail. (It helps not having a TV or iPad in the house to tempt us.)

We plant a garden.

For a new project this year, we’ve dug up an old perennial bed and transformed it into a vegetable garden. (You can read a detailed account here.) This is the best possible way for children to see where their food comes from and learn about food production. It gets them thinking about climate and what grows where, how seeds sprout and must be tended, how to harvest and prepare food.

We talk about conservation.

The idea of using resources sparingly for environmental and ethical reasons is tremendously valuable in a society saturated with abundance. We talk about conservation of water (don’t leave the water running, use cold water for laundry, have short showers), electricity (turn off the light, don’t preheat the oven, bake multiple items at once), gas (let’s ride our bikes instead), and food (eat what you’re served, save leftovers, compost the rest).

We talk about trash.

The kids know that less trash is a good thing, and that we use reusable bags, containers, and bottles whenever possible. They’ve noticed differences in how their lunches are packed, compared to their friends’, but accept those without question. They are responsible for sorting all the recycling, which helps them to realize how much unnecessary packaging actually exists. We often discuss littering, and always pick up garbage when we’re out.

We throw in science facts whenever possible.

Our kids are at the age where facts are golden; they memorize these nuggets of information and regurgitate them constantly. So, for example, when I attend an event for work and come home with interesting (and sad) statistics, such as 150 million sharks getting killed every year, that’s a good segue into a general conversation about needing to protect sharks and marine life.

We read books that have environmental themes.

Books are a great way of teaching tough concepts to children. We’re huge fans of Bill Peet’s stories, particularly The Wump World (one of the eeriest books I’ve ever read) and Farewell to Shady Glade. We love Robert McCloskey’s classics, One Morning in Maine and Make Way for Ducklings. We’ve read Charlotte’s Web, The Wind in the Willows, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Spot's Parking Lot. (See 10 wonderful adventure novels for children.)

We choose our battles.

I have to let my kids grow and discover the world on their own terms. Of course I will try my hardest to share my strong beliefs about planetary protection, but I also realize that they need to come to that realization on their own. I do not want to be a ‘downer’ that prevents them from having fun, so they are allowed to bring home loot bags from birthday parties, go trick-or-treating at Halloween, and accept balloons when they’re handed out.

It's a learning process for everyone -- for us adults who are facing new and pressing concerns about the climate, while trying to figure out this strange parenting gig, and for children who are growing, discovering themselves, and are eventually bound to realize that their older relatives haven't left this world nearly as pristine as it should be.

I'm curious to hear from other parents about how you handle this and what you do to talk to your own children (or students) about climate change. Feel free to share thoughts in the comments below.