When my daughter was four-and-a-half, she asked me point blank about climate change.
You’d think I’d be equipped for this conversation. After all, this is what I do for a living! For over a decade, I have studied the communications literature and issued dozens of talking points memos on climate challenges and solutions.
But her question left me speechless.
She had cracked open a heavily guarded vault of emotions. Everything I know and fear—and compartmentalize—about the planet’s prognosis, our broken systems, and fossil fuel politics was tied in a knot in my throat.
Think about it: dealing with climate change is about things kids already know well. It’s about cleaning up our messes; about the sun, wind, air, water, and our own bodies.
Nobody wants to frighten their kids. (We know even the most reasonable adults are shut down by fear.) But as the stakes grow more stark and the politics get more divisive, it’s more crucial than ever that we bring the full force of our emotions to this fight and that we raise active, community-minded, and environmentally-aware citizens. And, I believe, talking to our kids is one way to focus all our own difficult and powerful feelings in a way that fuels rather than saps our civic and political engagement.
Think about it: dealing with climate change is about things kids already know well. It’s about cleaning up our messes; about the sun, wind, air, water, and our own bodies; it’s about treating all people with respect and dignity, about stopping bullies; about sharing; and also about making rules that keep us safe—and making sure everyone follows the same rules! Young people are naturally curious, observant, and creative—they can get excited about nature, science, and new ideas.
And, most children intuitively know right from wrong. Their built-in moral compass detects and rejects injustice. And most kids aren’t yet jaded and cynical. Even teenagers are ready to question authority, fight established orthodoxy, and embrace innovations. In fact, our kids probably grasp the basics and get on board with solutions better than most grownups!
But the question remains: How do we really talk about it? How do we prepare our kids for the hard conversations and for our own emotions?
Working with ParentMap, we gathered wisdom from respected colleagues, activists, and scientists who are also parents—from Standing Rock, to British Columbia, to Portland, to Puget Sound.
- Kandi Mossett is an organizer with Indigenous Environmental Network and a leading water protector at Standing Rock.
- Sarah E. Myhre is a climate scientist with the Future of Ice Initiative and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington.
- Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons is director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon.
- Donna Morton is a finance innovator finding ways for people to divest from harm.
- Jana Gastellum is climate policy director for Oregon Environmental Council.
- Kim Powe is principal at 3E Integrity and a policy expert with a focus on racial justice, equity, and sustainability.
- Mara Gross is a communications manager at Climate Solutions in Oregon.
- Alex C. Gagnon is a climate scientist at the University of Washington.
- Michael Foster is an educator, mental health counselor, and activist.
- Eric de Place is policy director at Sightline.
Here is their shared wisdom for talking about global warming and for laying the foundations for climate-conscious and community-minded children.
I explain to my three-year-old daughter why Native Americans often talk about “Mother Earth” and make the parallels between how caretakers take care of their children and how our planet, in a very similar way, takes care of us by providing the food we need to eat, the water we need to drink, and the air we need to breathe. Once they grasp this concept, it’s easy for them to see how smoke coming out of coal-fired power plants makes the air dirty and thereby hard for us to breathe.
This past week, she picked up my little bullhorn and whispered “water is life.” It was an extremely proud moment for me.
I talk to children with as much encouragement as possible and let them know that anything is possible if they put their mind to it. I let them know that when they try new things, there is never a guarantee they will always succeed, but that they should at least try because if they don’t then they know for sure they will fail, and that’s no good either.
I encourage them to think from the heart about what is right and wrong. What I’ve done is a hands-on approach through experiential learning. With children of all ages, I’ve done tree plantings and community gardens, in addition to implementing recycling programs and light bulb swaps, picking up trash, and teaching about the importance of conserving energy and electricity. I do this with my own three-year-old as well.
I let them know that sometimes people in positions of power have a hard time because they’re trying to please everyone and that it may not always be possible to please everyone. I have my daughter with me at the Sacred Stone Camp and she has been absorbing everything she sees like a sponge. She’s ridden horses and played in the water. This past week, she picked up my little bullhorn and whispered “water is life.” It was an extremely proud moment for me.
Sarah E. Myhre
These are really hard questions and I am landing on these issues after a lot of growth and hard work. I’ve spent the last ten years thinking about oceans, marine ecosystems, and climate change, and I will tell you—there is so much loss and grief that I have shouldered due to the science. I have just been beside myself at times, and I think that is not an unusual response for people in our community. I mean, we are talking about changing the entire planet forever—these issues are so serious and important.
We have an immense opportunity to demonstrate the values of hope and integrity to our children, through our own actions and emotional transparency around climate change.
At the big picture level, I want my kid to have the emotional resiliency necessary to face problems like climate change—and to have a honed moral compass by which to see himself, our family, and our culture as part of the solution. The problem is, so much of parenting is about showing, not telling. Basically, this means that I need to demonstrate, through my own actions, what it means to be critical and self-aware of our culture of convenience and consumption. To make matters harder, I need to tend to my own emotional resiliency around this pain—I don’t have the option of numbness or apathy. Rather, I have to show up and hold a safe space open for my kid to learn about how complex, and sometimes scary, the world is.
So, this is my advice for parents: feel your feelings about this problem. Feel your feelings so that you can get to the other side, so that you can grieve and burn down the parts of you that need to go in order to rise through this and be stronger. Hold yourself to the high bar of growing up emotionally and intellectually—yeah, it hurts. Yeah, it’s not what we would prefer to be happening, but this is what it looks like to be an adult in 2016. These problems are not going to go away. They will only become more critical. We are all going to have to do this together.
In a future of climate warming, there are a lot of things at risk… things that are really scary when you contemplate the kinds of sacrifices that are down the road for us. But here’s the thing: in that future, we will still be family. We will still love each other. The things that make life worth living will still be here, and nothing can take them away. I think every parent intuitively knows that through loving one another, through loving our children and our family, we have the power to transcend and heal the world. We have an immense opportunity to demonstrate the values of hope and integrity to our children, through our own actions and emotional transparency around climate change.
Sarah Myhre is a postdoctoral scholar with the Future of Ice Initiative and the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. She has a three-year-old son.
Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons
There is a saying in our religious tradition, drawn from indigenous wisdom, that asks us to consider the impacts of what we do today and how that will affect the seventh generation that will follow us. This is a lesson we teach our children.
I grew up in a middle-class family. My father worked; my mom stayed at home. I lived in the Oregon Willamette Valley and enjoyed the beautiful and abundant riches of the natural world. I took deep breaths of clean air, played in clear creeks, and played in big open spaces. Looking back after four decades, I recognize what a privilege this was, and how so many do not have the resources or rights to experience and learn from such places.
I remember being a kid, at home, in Sunday School, learning lessons of caring for the earth and all her living beings. I had the opportunity to see up close how life works together in mystical harmony, evolving, and I came to believe deeply that we are all closely interconnected. I understood my home to be more than my house, and how it encompassed my town, my valley, my state, and over time, the world.
I loved how being outdoors made me feel so free and so grounded. I also enjoyed how it made me feel like I belonged, and thus developed a personal responsibility to care for and nurture the place I called home. Wherever I have gone, I don’t feel whole until I have developed a meaningful attachments to the place where I live. I seek to understand the history, the people, struggles, and legends that make up the fabric of a place. As a family, we create space in our storytime and at the dinner table with our children to share these stories, to inquire about what our kids see, smell, and hear. We spend time getting to know our neighbor, even when it is hard and if feels like a one-way relationship. We make and share food, crafts, cards, and quality time on our street, inviting new folks into conversation, asking about their lives, and developing trust.
It is out of this foundation that we speak of climate change with our children. We want our kids to have a finely tuned sense of the world around them, to be critical about the conditions we live in, and to carefully notice and interpret the world around them. This extends to people and the environment. We make explicit the relationship between the two, and we do our best to connect the dots so our children understand the root causes of what we see on the surface.
We discuss the foods we eat, where they come from, who grows and harvests and transports it. We are curious about the changes to weather patterns and the migration of people. Climate change, like everything we care about, starts in our home. We step back to consider our situation at a global level, and then zero in on our immediate circumstances. We ask each other, what is the impact of our actions, and who will be most affected? We strive, through all our human imperfections, to apply the lessons we have learned to live in balance with the world around us.
How can you center the seventh generation?
Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons is director of APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. He is the father of three.
I have been talking to my son about climate change most of his life, with different approaches as he got older. He always came with me to meetings and hearings and my TEDx talks. He learned first-hand what it means to be involved, discuss, speak up, and be political. That was his political education. He didn’t always want to go but now I realize that he was soaking everything in through osmosis—the substance of it and the spirit of serving people and the world. He’s nineteen now and a serious political animal.
When he was little, we didn’t drive a car. We took a bike or the bus for every doctor’s appointment and trip to the grocery store. He’d ask me why I didn’t drive like other mommies, and it meant we had conversations from early on about decisions we make that impact people and places, about pollution, and about climate change. We’d talk about the changing weather at first, and later I’d connect his school projects—learning about math and science—to big earth systems and climate change. He’d study water systems, nitrogen cycles, and we’d talk about daily decisions and the connection to the larger picture.
What strengthens us and centers us is our connection to nature. He grew up with an acute awareness of the world around him.
What strengthens us and centers us is our connection to nature. He grew up with an acute awareness of the world around him. Our play and leisure time was always in the woods or by a lake. We don’t go to the movies. When we hang out now, when we do something together, it’s usually going somewhere outside. This is a sanctuary. It’s restorative. In the woods is where we have important or serious conversations, we connect to each other, we slow down. You realize that nature is a beautiful place to talk and also a beautiful place not to talk. But being there connects you to yourself and to each other. We know that we can get spiritual comfort from going into nature. It’s fundamental to who we are.
And that’s partly because when he was growing up we were outside all the time. We practically lived outside. When he was eight years old we moved into a yurt and only used wood heat and a composting toilet. He didn’t always appreciate these choices we were making, but we had these conversations all the time about why we did things a certain way, what it meant, and what the trade-offs are. The decisions I’ve made have come with challenges—stress and strain and financial sacrifices—but as a parent, living and working in alignment with my purpose and my values has been a gift.
As a teenager questioning everything and questioning adults, my son and I always had a deep mutual respect. I am grateful that I had it easier than some other parents, because my son saw that I was doing what I love and that I didn’t sell out or just give lip service to my convictions. I kept his respect. And now that he is a young man, we align around our service to community and the world.
My son asked me hard questions and gave me new insights all along the way. Kids kick our butts. I have enormous faith in the millennial generation. I think that we need to look more astutely at millennials. They have integrity and high standards, and they want to do things differently than we did them. Rather than dismiss them because they are not doing what we did or doing it how we did, we need to ask ourselves why it is they are acting the way they do. They can teach us. And they want us to be elders. They are disappointed when they see us living in our privilege, ignoring climate change, not doing decolonization work.
These are the critical questions of our times. It’s time to ask ourselves: how do we become the elders they need us to become? How do we support them? How are we going to heal our relationships with them before we die?
Donna Morton is the co-founder and CEO of Change Finance—creating deep values ETFs for Wall Street that are fossil- and harm-free. She is a lifelong social entrepreneur, an Ashoka, Unreasonable, and Ogunte fellow. (Full disclosure: Donna was an early Sightline staffer! Her son is 19.)
My first conversation about climate change happened after my daughter visited a fire station on a field trip. She became fascinated with fire. When she saw a picture of a globe with flames on it (a thank-you card to me from a school child), she immediately asked about it. We talked about how Mommy works to stop climate change, which is caused by pollution from cars and burning stuff for power plants. She could understand that we don’t want the world to get too hot because it will harm animals and how we grow food and get our water. Like most of us, kids are natural visual learners, and having an image open a conversation was a great aid.
I bike-commute with my daughters to their preschool. When my oldest started noticing that cars have letters on them (she was excited to find “H” like in her name), it opened up a natural opportunity to talk about different types of cars. I started pointing out the electric vehicles, explained they don’t have any tailpipe pollution, and how they’re better for our climate and our lungs.
My nine-month-old came with me to a bill signing for a renewable energy bill Oregon passed. After my three-year-old saw photos, she wanted to “play bill signing.” We talked about what laws are (they set the rules for how we do things), how laws are made (everyone should have a voice, but there are bad guys who sometimes stop good things from happening), and that the governor ultimately gets to sign bills. She, of course, wanted to be the governor.
Jana Gastellum is the Climate Program Director of Oregon Environmental Council. Her daughters are three and one years old.
My daughter is only now turning five. She’s not ready for the scary, planetary disaster stuff. But we can teach our kids about how they are members of a community, about our collective responsibility to each other, our responsibility for other people, for our neighbors, for our community. It’s about raising good people. Our broader culture, the messages kids get, is mostly individualistic, capitalistic, consumerist. But when you talk to them about it and when you model the ways of doing things for your child as a conscientious citizen of the earth, you raise a conscientious earthling!
The driver for my environmental values is people; it’s about the powerless and people of color getting the short end of the stick. My daughter gets this.
You can’t have sustainability without justice or justice without sustainability. My daughter comes with me to meetings about climate change and racial justice. She’s listening (or dancing in the middle of the room). She comes to conversations at Daybreak Star and EPOC (Environmental Professionals of Color) meetings. We watched the presidential debate together. I talk to her about race. She sees that brown and Black people are treated differently. We have conversations about this. The driver for my environmental values is people; it’s about the powerless and people of color getting the short end of the stick. My daughter gets this.
We talk about solutions, and I try to instill the idea that people do things differently, and we need all the ideas and approaches we can get to make progress. There are different kinds of wisdom and knowledge—indigenous knowledge—that will be necessary parts of the solution.
All of this sets her up for climate change understanding, for seeing herself as part of a community, seeing herself as part of a global system.
And even little kids understand these community concepts if you talk to them about it: the difference between needs and wants, sharing, not taking more than we need, not wasting food and water. This is how we share, how we give to others, how we treat people, how we live in a community that takes care of people.
Kids relate to food and water. We have a garden and grow our own food. My daughter understands that we only take what we need, and if we have extra, we give it to other people.
I’m showing my daughter how to be a conscientious human being, how we all get to make choices, and that her choices have impacts. She is learning that you can do things that benefit many instead of benefitting just yourself. In the US, lots of people have the luxury to squander resources the way we do.
We use everyday illustrations to think about choices. We bike to school. She asks me if we can drive the car. It’s a chance to talk about the choice to bike and what happens when you drive a car—you make pollution—and what happens when you can choose not to do that.
There’s a myth that people of color don’t go hiking or camping. But we do. The way people of color interact with nature might not conform to conventional ways of being outdoors. But the connection to the world around you is as powerful. I remember walking with my daughter in a backpack, and we’d say, “let’s go walk in the trees.” She always had such a big smile on her face. Those connections, that feeling when you are outside and nature is your sanctuary, go with you your whole life. And we need to dispel the myth that nature is somewhere far away. It’s everywhere. It’s in your backyard, and kids can connect to it every day.
Kim Powe is a policy expert with a focus on sustainability and racial justice. She is principal at 3E Integrity. Her daughter is four years old (almost five).
My four-year-old doesn’t understand systemic issues yet, so we talk in terms of our personal actions and responsibility—things like turning off lights we’re not using so we don’t waste energy, biking to school because it’s healthy and fun and doesn’t make the air dirty, and making sure our camp fire is out to protect the forest from fires.
I’ve also started to lay the foundation for a future conversation about climate change. We have talked about our solar panels and how we get some of our energy from the sun, and after seeing an exhibit about space travel at our local science museum, we talked about the atmosphere and how the air keeps the temperature on our planet not too hot or too cold.
Last week she told me that she wants our next car to be electric. Why, I asked. Because gas cars are too stinky, she said. That made me smile.
Mara Gross is the Oregon communications manager of Climate Solutions. She has a four-year-old daughter
Alex C. Gagnon
The world is this incredibly beautiful, amazing, complex place. Sharing that beauty, that complexity, sharing that wonder fits very naturally with parenting. You can give kids a foundation that makes them feel connected, makes them critical thinkers and makes them think the world is a place of wonder. Given the host of challenges they will face in their lives, this foundation is more important to me than training them to fix one particular problem.
Alex C. Gagnon is an assistant professor of oceanography at the University of Washington. He has a two-year-old daughter and a newborn.
When people take action on climate is when we feel the most powerful and joyful and a sense of purpose, because we know in those moments we’re part of something bigger, doing something for someone beside ourselves. You feel alive and powerful when you know, “This is not my own self-preservation, it’s not just about me; it’s about all of us, about our society, our civilization, the next generation.”
Kids feel this kind of power, too. And I don’t try to hide things from the kids I talk to. I am very straightforward about what we are facing together. Even the big, scary stuff. It’s kind of like talking about the monster under the bed: Once you talk about the monster under the bed, now you’re not so scared.
And kids see clearly what’s good and what’s bad. They know you should stand for what’s right and not what is evil.
And kids jump to action. You tell an eleven-year-old that we are losing 10 billion trees per year, and they say, “Okay, what are we going to do about it?” They are unlike adults that way. They haven’t learned helplessness. It makes no sense to a kid to have a problem and not get busy fixing it right away. That positive energy and can-do spirit is empowering to kids and to the adults around them. Kids can fuel solutions in that way.
And kids see clearly what’s good and what’s bad. They know you should stand for what’s right and not what is evil.
Teens see right and wrong, too, but they have started to see that grownups don’t always do the right thing. You can channel teenagers’ anger—that anti-authoritarian, anti-establishment streak. Unlike lots of adults, they can see that it’s a dead end to wait for someone else to come along and change things. We can help them understand that the grownups are stuck. That systems have failed them. I apologize to them. I say that I know I’m part of the problem. They respond to that honesty.
And then I try to show them how powerful they really are. You should see what happens when a twelve-year-old testifies about climate change at a hearing or in court. After hours upon hours of more of the same, old, boring, technical testimony from experts and grownups, a kid’s voice stops everything. When kids talk, everyone in the room holds their breath. This is the voice of our conscience, of our future, our legacy. And it’s powerful. Kids can get excited when they see how their voice matters and how people will listen.
Kids who are suing the Department of Ecology cannot wait until they graduate high school for emissions cuts to begin or it becomes physically impossible to return to any stable climate within their lifetime. That’s why they have been in court for two years to force Washington State to limit pollution now. And the judge in her rulings clearly understands that emergency. Making this case in an official, legal way makes it about real people and real lives.
But we need to be inspired and hopeful, too. I often ask children to imagine kids learning from a history book, a thousand years in the future. We imagine reading about what average people did—kids, parents, grandparents—to end the carbon era. The idea is that when we work together—personally, socially, politically—we can’t be stopped because we’re on the right side of history.
Michael Foster is a climate activist, Seattle mental health counselor, and father of 12-year-old and 14-year-old daughters. He has given a climate change slideshow to more than 10,000 local students and is involved in the children’s’ suit for generational climate justice, Foster v. Ecology.
Eric de Place
I have deep misgivings about talking climate change with my son. In part, I suspect this arises from some parental instinct to shelter our kids from the worst aspects of the world and in part because I personally find the topic almost too distressing. Can I contemplate with children the idea that our modern economy is destroying the sea life they peer at in microcosmic reverence in a tidepool? I cannot.
Coal trains are big and nasty-looking, so it doesn’t require a huge amount of abstract thinking to understand why dad might oppose them.
My work at Sightline has for years revolved largely around the Thin Green Line—Northwest communities’ extended fight against the ravages of coal and oil export schemes—and I have tended to use those disputes about physical infrastructure as a gateway for talking about climate protection. There’s something useful about this. Coal trains are big and nasty-looking, so it doesn’t require a huge amount of abstract thinking to understand why Dad might oppose them. And they fit neatly into the moral universe of a young child where good guys (like the Lummi Nation) fight bad guys (like Bob Murray—CEO of the largest coal mining company in America and relentless crusader against climate solutions).
Still and all, I worry. With no prompting from me, my son last year rallied his first grade classmates to chant “no oil trains” when one crossed their path on a field trip. Where does this come from? I know he picks up on what I do for a living, and I know he flushes with pride when his teacher sees his dad on TV, and so I assume he is imitating me after a fashion. My heart swells even as it recoils. Does he need to know that evil stalks our way of life? Does he need to know that desperately poor people put their bodies between their water and the dogs and guns of the government—his government—that acts on behalf of an oil company whose very business model aims to ruin his future?
Must he know this now?
Just so, I’m leaving it to his science teachers to instruct him in atmospheric carbon concentrations and adaptation strategies for rising seas. My hunch is that if we want our kids to do as we do—that is, to fight for a stable climate—we do better when we meet them on their own terrain—in the world of imagination, rather than in science and politics. As one author said, “Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
Eric de Place is policy director at Sightline Institute. His son is seven.