How to talk to your kids about climate change — and have fun, too
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a final call to keep the global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels. Doing so will require “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
When the Trump administration downplays climate change across the country, it puts everyone at risk but especially children who will have to live with the consequences of inaction.
“Every day we see more evidence that this administration is actively working against the health and safety of the most vulnerable Americans—our children,” said Ken Cook, the president of Environmental Working Group, an environmental health nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C., in October. “Tragically, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Trump administration is waging a war on children.”
Yet no matter how many times world leaders sit at a table to fix the problem, we can’t seem to get anywhere. The grown-ups are failing, and it’s the kids who are holding us to account.
Around the world, children are taking action—they’re going on strike from school, calling on governments to do something, and filing lawsuits. They are willing to be bold in the face of indifference, and to shout louder than today’s failing leaders.
We need to listen. And we need to hold their hands and do something, together. As grown-ups—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, doctors, and friends—we can help by talking to kids about climate change and empowering them to be a part of the solution.
But that’s not as easy as it sounds. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time following my 3-year-old son around and switching things off. I tried something new the other day: “It’s bad for the planet when you switch things on that you don’t need,” I said. He stopped and looked at me for a moment, then switched off the light and continued playing.
A small victory. This felt like the start of something we’ll need to continue talking about for many years.
What’s clear to me now is that there won’t be a single moment when we need to have “the talk” about climate change. Instead, climate change needs to be something that’s part of our everyday conversations and actions. It needs to be fun and engaging, solutions-focused, and fact-based. And, above all, it needs to start now. Here are five techniques that can help.
- Turn it into a story
Kids love stories. They can be a great way to get a complex message across. But don’t panic: There are loads of great climate change stories out there already, and they’re great conversation starters.
According to Megan Herbert, Amsterdam-based children’s book author, storytelling is the first of a three-step process toward action. “The theory is that you can entertain children and open up their empathy,” she told me. “A well-told story will get the audience to empathize with its characters and feel their emotions.” Storytelling leads children to the next steps—getting curious and taking action.
Herbert did extensive research into the psychology of climate communication with young people when she was working on her book The Tantrum That Saved the World with fellow parent Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University.
Their book is an example of storytelling that can educate and inspire children. It follows Sophia, who is minding her own business when a polar bear turns up needing somewhere to stay, followed by a family whose home has been flooded, a swarm of bees, a tiger, and more climate refugees. The story shows that there are solutions and demonstrates practical ways to help as Sophia takes action by shouting loudly and rallying people. And it includes information about each character—and the science behind climate change.
There are lots of popular kids’ books that use these storytelling tools to tackle environmental problems. Here are five to try:
- The Lorax by Dr. Seuss
- The Tragic Tale of the Great Auk by Jan Thornhill
- The Problem of the Hot World by Pam Bonsper
- The Brilliant Deep by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe
- The Tantrum That Saved the World by Megan Herbert and Michael Mann
- Build up the facts
As a science writer and general science enthusiast, I think it’s important that we’re honest with kids about climate change. But that doesn’t mean they need to see the whole picture right away.
I asked people in a Facebook group called Sustainable Community of Amsterdam how they talked to children about climate change. Many said they first introduced their young kids to how nature works: How plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, why water is important, why we need to look after animals.
Dina DeHart, the group’s manager, has a 6-year-old. As a parent, she focuses on connection to nature and consequences, and the climate change part will come later.
“We do frequent cleanups on our walks to keep the plants and animals safe,” she wrote in a thread. “We are also mindful about switching off lights in our home, water consumption, etc. I think it’s important to work on … empathy, compassion and good environmental etiquette in preparation for that next step.”
While we need to start small, we still need to be honest and avoid conveying “false optimism,” said Mann, coauthor of Tantrum. “We have to convey the gravity of the situation. ... [F]ortunately what is true is that an objective assessment of the science does support the message that the threat is dire, and immediate, and the urgency is great, but there is still a path forward where we can prevent catastrophic climate change,” he told the International Business Times. “Now, we have to avoid being too Pollyannaish, and being unobjectively Pollyannaish.”
- Tell the truth—but in manageable pieces
We have to tell the truth, but that means we’ll inevitably reach a point at which the story gets scary. That used to worry me: Climate change is a huge and terrifying topic for adults—just imagine what it could do to children. We’re already seeing cases of climate anxiety on the rise: People feel panicked and paralyzed because of their overwhelming sense of responsibility and fear, with no easy way to personally fix the situation.
In the 2007 report “Children’s Fears, Hopes and Heroes: Modern Childhood in Australia,” a team of researchers from the Australian Childhood Foundation and Monash University concluded that children are extremely concerned about the state of the planet. Of the 600 children ages 10 to 14 they surveyed, 44 percent were worried about the future impact of climate change. In fact, they found that a quarter of children “are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.”
It’s important, then, that we don’t overwhelm kids in our conversations about climate change. In her research on the psychology of climate communication, Herbert noted: “If they see an image of a flood or a fire, scary climate change results, they don’t have the ability to process that with a world view; they look at it and ask when the flood is going to come to their house.
“The key is to break it down into smaller stories—let them know it’s all happening in different places and it’s all connected. And show them there’s something they can do about it.”
- Help kids take action
However we present it, there’s no getting around the facts: Climate change is deadly serious. While the latest IPCC report highlights the need for urgent, drastic action at an international level, it also puts the onus on the individual: There are things we can—and must—do now to make a difference. And that gives us a great opportunity to make the climate change conversation one of action.
This gives us a great way to talk to kids about the issues: Focus on the things we can do every day to make a difference, like eating less meat and dairy and more seasonal food; throwing less away; walking or cycling short distances; and hanging clothes out to dry.
“You can’t give a child a problem and say [in] the end there’s no solution,” Herbert explained. “You have to give them something actionable, something tangible, so they feel empowered.”
Climate-friendly behavior has been the default since she was young, and it’s something she is already passing on to her 4-year-old son. “We’re doing what we can,” Herbert said. “We take our produce bags to the market; we talk about what’s in season. My son is super-aware without being stressed about it. The power is in your own household—making positive actions normal and explaining why it’s important.”
- Make it fun
Taking action doesn’t need to be serious; in fact, making it fun will help kids engage with the topic. Yet we’re still using the same tired old messages.
“The problem is the way we educate kids hasn’t changed over the last 50 years,” said parent and entrepreneur Andriy Shmyhelskyy, who lives in the Netherlands. “We still tell them the same thing: ‘Turn off the lights because A) I say so and B) we need to save money.’ It doesn’t work.”
Shmyhelskyy is taking a more playful approach to climate change action with a product he recently launched. Hyko is a polar bear nightlight with a climate-conscious message that he designed to let kids monitor energy use, and he uses it with his own daughter.
“My daughter is 3 years old, and I’m already telling her why we need to turn things off,” he said.
“I believe that actually we can make it more playful for kids, but also for the parents sharing the message. After reading a story or playing a game, kids are more engaged because they want to be part of something.”
What started out as a smart meter to show kids the real-time impact of using different appliances has become a nightlight that teaches them about energy. It comes with a whole load of related stuff: Kids can play games, solve quizzes, and learn about electricity and smart energy use.
Here are a few fun tools from NASA and National Geographic to help make climate action a part of kids’ everyday lives:
- Play NASA Climate Kids games.
- Predict the weather using signals from nature.
- Play the game Recycle Roundup, then work out how the family can help save the planet.
Upcycle a pair of jeans into a lunch bag.