Susan Andrews | Talking to Kids on Climate Change

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Climate change is a critical issue impacting our children. Unless we take immediate action, there will not be a livable planet for them. Children are aware of this. They read about it and watch videos about it online. They hear about it on the news. Glaciers and ice floes are melting. Australia is burning. Water levels are rising. Polar bears and koalas are dying. 

Children are frightened and angry. They justifiably blame us and previous generations for not being better custodians of our planet, for allowing greed and short-sighted policies to bring us to this tipping point. Many have lost faith in adults’ willingness and/or ability to act in a timely manner and rectify the problem before it’s too late. Some children are resigned. They have given up. Others are standing up, voicing their concern, demonstrating — calling on world leaders to take action, before it’s too late to turn things around.

I was an elementary school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for 35 years. I retired before climate change was addressed in the classroom. We had discussions on the environment and ecology and individual ways we could do our part to improve the environment, but we didn’t discuss a possible end-of-the-world scenario. This scenario presented itself at my dining table last Saturday, when my niece and her two children came to lunch. In the middle of a conversation about horseback riding, my younger great niece, who is 12, said, “My teacher said we’re all going to die sometime in the next 15 years because of climate change!” 

Her voice rose, and she almost screamed, “It’s all because your generations are greedy!”

Having been in the classroom all those years, I know full well this was probably not her teacher’s entire message. She probably missed some parts — specifically a “might be” and things that could still be done to keep this from happening — having fixated on the part that terrified her. We had a discussion, filling in these missing pieces as well as brainstorming things she could do to feel empowered instead of helpless. Ways she could contribute to a solution. She felt somewhat better, and on a personal level, because she was less stressed, I felt better. However, my “teacher mode” kicked in, and I realized the importance of addressing the topic in the classroom (and at home) in a way that won’t elicit paralytic fear, being honest about facts but presenting positive ways forward.

I turned to a friend who is active in Citizen’s Climate Lobby, and she forwarded an article to me from The New York Times entitled “Climate Change Is Scaring Kids. Here’s How to Talk to Them,” and another article by Lora Shinn, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, entitled “Your Guide to Talking with Kids of All Ages About Climate Change.” Both of these articles stress the importance of addressing the issue in age-appropriate ways. For young children, Dr. Janet K. Swim, a professor of psychology at Penn State University, says, “The goal is for them to appreciate the beauty of nature. They should be thinking about what is good in the environment” and the part they can play. Discuss the seasons. Plant a garden. Discuss ways they can decrease their carbon footprint by recycling and turning off lights. Care for animals. Go to zoos and aquariums. 

Older children should also take part in environmental activities, as it makes them feel less helpless and part of the solution. In addition, the causes of climate change should be clearly explained in a matter-of-fact manner. Be open to their questions. Discuss the challenges AND the positive steps adults and their peers are taking, and introduce them to ways they may take an active role. It is important that we let children know that it is NOT too late to save the planet. 

We are taking this journey to address climate change ALONGSIDE our children. It is important that we listen to and value their thoughts on the matter. We may learn as much, or more, from them as they learn from us. As for teaching our children, the best way to do so is by example, doing our part, reducing our own carbon footprints, planting trees and gardens, recycling, taking part in protests, educating ourselves, etc. 

If we also “walk the talk,” by doing so we will win their trust and respect and truly be their teachers.

Susan Andrews is a member of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Santa Clarita chapter, and lives in Newhall.

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