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How do we talk to our kids about climate change?
How do we talk to our kids about climate change?
“Which bin, mummy?” My son hovers with an empty yoghurt pouch.
“The lid can go in the recycling,” I say. “The pouch…in the rubbish.” A twinge of guilt: to landfill, in other words.
At six, he’s learned to check which bin to use. Why, as an adult, haven’t I learned not to swamp the planet with unrecyclable waste?
“Brush teeth,” I say, grabbing the car-keys. “Quick, we’re late for school.” There’s my answer: convenience.
Three people are dead as catastrophic fires – I snap the car radio off. My child asks why people are dying in fires. I answer briefly, skirt around the horrific facts.
“Shall we try walking to school tomorrow?” I ask brightly. Driving seems wasteful: it’s only 1500 metres. I make it sound like fun – we’ll play eye spy, spot drivers picking their noses at traffic lights. My son laughs, the burning world forgotten.
Cautiously, I edge the radio back up. Tomorrow’s forecast: 40 degrees, blustery winds. “Too hot to walk,” I say, squinting at the horizon. Is that smoke haze out there?
Protecting kids from scary stuff is part of parenthood. But what if the monster under the bed is real? As a grown-up, climate change terrifies me. How do we talk to our kids about it – and how truthful should we be?
Honesty here seems brutal, but the experts say denial is unhelpful too. For younger kids, parents are advised to give simple, truthful answers to any questions, talk about the small daily actions we can take to help the planet – and walk the talk.
For older kids, it’s important to avoid despair, encourage hope, and emphasise that taking action can make a difference. To talk about feelings, and watch for anxiety. But when are kids ready to deal with the scarier facts? Opinion differs: some experts say around 9 or 10 years old, others advise waiting until they’re 12 or 13.
Researchers agree that teaching kids to care for nature is good for both their own wellbeing and the planet’s health. But there’s a possible downside here: when you love something, losing it can be painful.
Last winter, my son led me into the park behind his kindergarten. Weary from work, at first I resisted.
“Come on, Mummy,” he urged, taking my hand. “I want to show you something.” He led me along Stony Creek to a peaceful clearing, the ground stomped smooth by small feet.
“See?” he said proudly. “It’s our special place.” He showed me bird footprints in the mud, the stepping stones the children used to cross the shallow creek, the tree where he once befriended a funny beetle. His teachers’ references to “nature play” suddenly made sense.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Thanks for showing me.”
A week later, my phone rang: the kindergarten was being evacuated. Driving to collect my child, I saw black smoke belching into the sky, like footage from a disaster film. A nearby factory full of illegally stockpiled chemicals was on fire. It took 30 fire trucks to control the blaze.
The toxic runoff poisoned Stony Creek, reducing it to a ditch full of black sludge and dead fish. It will take a decade to recover. Banned from going near the water, their special place destroyed by careless adults, the children expressed sadness, loss and grief.
Now we’re downstream from a more urgent disaster, one that’s unfolding on a global scale. My son is too young to hear the whole truth about the damage humans are doing – that Australia is on fire, people and animals are dying, homes and habitats being destroyed; that polar bears are starving, insects are disappearing, and we’re facing a mass extinction event. So I filter the facts to protect him. But I know it’s just a temporary measure.
Books are a great way to plant ideas, drip-feed disturbing information and navigate tough topics. Together we read The Lorax, a story I loved as a kid. A prescient eco-fable from 1971, it ends on a note both hopeful and ominous: Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
It’s a powerful line, but it makes me uneasy. Kids are already leading climate strikes, suing governments, urging politicians to act. By encouraging our children to become “environmental stewards”, are we raising them to survive and thrive on a warming planet – or are we simply hoping they’ll fix the awful mess we’ve made?
Worry looms: what kind of world will our son inherit? How habitable will it be? The forecast is frightening.
Connect with nature. Take small actions. Encourage hope. Avoid despair.
Children are not responsible for saving the planet – that’s our job. But preparing kids for the future is our job too.
Together we read fun books with serious messages, plant vegetables to eat and flowers for the bees, cycle along the river, put out water for the birds, attend the climate strikes, take those small but important steps. When he’s ready, our child will learn the whole truth. For now, I want the world to remain his “special place”, safe from destruction by careless adults.
Climate Change: Kid-friendly Resources
Meg Mundell is a Melbourne-based writer and researcher. Her acclaimed second novel, The Trespassers (UQP), is out now. She’s also the editor of We Are Here: Stories of Home, Place & Belonging (Affirm Press), a collection of stories by people who have experienced homelessness.