The Climate Talk (With Children)

5 guiding principles for having the "climate talk" with children

Posted Jan 23, 2020

Like the “sex talk,” the "climate talk" is uncomfortable and we don’t want to overshare. But is it worth getting uncomfortable? Do our children need to engage with this subject? I believe yes, children need to learn in age-appropriate ways that the planet needs our help, and they can make a positive impact. But what do you say to your students or children about climate change? Well, this is a big question, and I believe one worth pondering. After pouring through research for a climate project, I decided to write this short article to share some guiding principles that help elementary school-aged children (and older) begin to grasp the concept and get empowered to make small to bigger steps, which can have a positive impact.

The "Climate Talk"

  1. Help children feel safe. Our world certainly feels unsafe for an adult sometimes, and even more so for children. The goal is to help boys and girls understand their emotions, gain skills (add strategies to their emotional toolbox) and handle their anxiety or worry skillfully. Of course, every child is different and some may do well with breathing exercises, listening to calming audios (such as the app, Calm) or learning worry reduction techniques (such as using a worry timer). It is also a good idea to limit media, especially climate-related images, which may increase worry. I do recommend acknowledging a child’s fears (or worry), helping them handle it skillfully (learn new strategies), and reassure them that you’re “in it together.” (If worry interferes with daily living, please don’t hesitate to seek professional assistance).
  2. Be honest. The focus needs to be on age-appropriate facts, and of course, understanding the child you have. Is your son or daughter science-focused? Then that’s the way in. Show them a short (pre-screened video, such as this one) to start with the big picture and encourage their engagement. Or perhaps he or she is an animal advocate, you can take them somewhere locally to learn firsthand like my recent field trip to the Marine Mammal Center where we learned about the warming waters, and the impact on seal life.
  3. Learn about Planet Earth together and make smart choices. When we love something, we’ll do anything for it. Whether you watch the G-rated documentary, Oceans, by Disney on Netflix or Disney Plus—it’s a way for a child to see the awe, magic, and beauty of our seas and what lives in them. We can then segue into what we can do (what’s in our control) about helping our ocean creatures live longer, and healthier such as reducing plastic bag usage and recycling our garbage versus leaving things on the beach after a day relaxing. It’s believed over 1 million sea mammals die each year from plastic debris in the ocean (Sea Turtle Conservancy, 2020). Takeaway: Plan something to do so your child (or students) gain an appreciation of the natural world, and then help them see their choices can make an impact.
  4. Be prepared. Every family needs to have extra supplies, if they can, and be prepared if a natural disaster occurs. This isn’t to scare you, but the electrical grid can go down and/or transportation problems can occur. Of course, the goal is never to need these supplies, but if you have them—it eases the stress if an unpredictable climate-related situation arises. Yale Climate Connections suggests: “knowing how to prepare for and survive a few days on your own with flashlights, canned foods and other emergency supplies” (Peach, 2019). Also, it’s helpful to prioritize related to your location, which means as a California resident I always have a “go-bag” in case of wildfires, mudslides or earthquakes, but your geography may be different. For example, the Midwest is likely to have more flash floods so teach those children about how to stay safe in a flash flood scenario.
  5. Focus on solutions. “We must inspire them to be part of the solution,” said Michael Mann, an American climatologist and geophysicist, and father of a young daughter. "But we can’t wait for them to grow up—it will be too late then” (Yale Climate Connections). The focus on solutions is essential to help children become hopeful and feel capable that their choices matter. Said differently, we want to inform children at their age (and capability level) and guide them to make choices with meaning. For example, use recyclable bags (not plastic), turn off lights when not needed, eat some meat-free meals, walk or ride bicycles (when safe/appropriate), grow your own vegetables, and when it’s summer, dry your clothes outside, as some examples. Older children may write their senators and congressional representatives, and participate in peaceful protests (with parents, or other caring adults).

Climate Change Can Change

Our current situation can change. If we don’t interrupt where the planet is going through—scientists, intelligent adults, and educated professionals, all recognize the future doesn’t look so bright. It is genuinely up to us as caring adults to discuss climate change in age-appropriate ways that don’t scare children but empower them to engage with the natural world and take appropriate steps to help the planet. Of course, in the process, we need to educate ourselves, too and engage with a subject, which may make us a little uncomfortable, but it is certainly the right thing to do—for us, our children and the whole wide world.

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