“Why are you washing that? It needs to be thrown away.”
Jenny Owens, 35, was rinsing a plastic sandwich bag in the kitchen of her Cleveland, Ohio, home earlier this year when her then 5-year-old son, Aaron, interjected. To him, washing a plastic sandwich bag seemed weird. He hadn’t seen other parents do it.
Owens kept her reply simple: The family washes the bags so they can reuse them. That way, they don’t end up in the ocean. Though brief, the explanation was Aaron’s first lesson on climate change.
“It was very quick,” Owens says. “And he was fine with that.”
Though her teachings are simple right now, Owens isn’t alone in wanting to talk to her children—including 4-year-old daughter, Abby—about human-caused climate change. About 45 percent of parents say they’ve discussed climate change with their children, according to an April 2019 NPR poll. But the discussion can be complicated for caregivers who want to teach their children about the climate crisis without confusing or scaring them.
Experts—from psychologists and educators to climate activists—agree that the conversation is difficult. But parents shouldn’t avoid it.
“Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be,” says John Fraser, a psychologist and CEO of Knology, a think tank that studies health and the environment.
“Sometimes problems [like climate change] are really simple. They’re just very, very big problems.”
Meet Your Child Where They Are
Because her kids are still young, Owens addresses climate change in simple ways, like answering questions about why the family recycles and why it’s important they not waste food. Sometimes she’ll use nature walks to talk to her kids about the importance of Leave No Trace. Or she’ll point to deer grazing in their backyard to start a discussion about how animal populations are changing. But the conversations—right now, at least—are straightforward, succinct and ongoing.
Most of the time, Owens talks about climate with her kids when they ask about it. For children younger than 6, this is a good tactic, says Mary DeMocker, author of The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future.
“If they bring it up to you, answer only their questions,” DeMocker says. “I wouldn’t open up a whole doorway to climate education to a kid under 6.”
For example, an explanation to a question like, “What is climate change?” can be as simple as saying that pollution goes into the air and acts like a blanket around the planet, which makes it hotter.
DeMocker also says it’s important to listen to kids and address their individual concerns. Younger kids are likely to be worried about specific scenarios, such as their house catching on fire or not being able to take a pet with them if they need to evacuate their home.
“Find out what they think [climate change] means and do your best to reassure them about their own particular worry,” she says.
Fraser explains that how children understand things varies based on their age. Kids 4 to 6 years old, for instance, process things much differently than those between 7 and 11.
“What’s important is to understand what [the kids] are asking and what they know before you start a conversation,” he says. “We’re not going to start talking about the chemical composition of seawater and sea-level rise when a 7-year-old just wants to understand why the planet is getting hot.”
Similarly, introducing a climate-justice perspective to the conversation also must be age appropriate. Kids approaching their teens are beginning to understand empathy, so parents can explain climate change through a social-justice lens—for instance, talking about how marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by climate change—and expect their kids to understand. Kids younger than 10, though, generally only understand concepts as being fair or unfair and have a hard time digesting scenarios they’ve never experienced, so a justice lesson likely won’t land as well.
Fraser says that kids up to 10, 11 and 12 think about climate change in terms of personal safety and their ability to help find a solution. For that reason, he says it can be helpful to give kids examples of how to stay safe or how they can be part of a team that will save the planet.
“Sometimes when kids want an explanation of what’s happening, they want to know how they can be part of the team that can make things OK,” he says.
DeMocker encourages parents to consider their child as an individual. Some kids are really sensitive. Others are inquisitive. It’s OK for parents to tailor the conversation to their child’s individual needs.
“They are always needing to be met where they are,” DeMocker said. “They also need to be met for who they are.”
Have Ongoing Conversations
Jill Kubit, director and founder of climate-focused digital project, DearTomorrow, introduced her son to nature when he was about a year old. They’d spend time outside together, looking at plants. She’d talk to him about what they saw. When he was 5, she sat him down and talked to him about the concepts of dirty and clean energy and how it can affect the air. He’s 6 now, and she says she’ll likely wait until he’s about 9 to discuss the greater impacts of climate change on the planet.
Though Kubit says her son still doesn’t fully understand climate change—not yet—she’s established a foundation. Early discussions don’t have to be in-depth explanations. “If you see it as part of a conversation, then it becomes easier to build upon as they get older and the material gets more difficult,” she says.
The level of detail can evolve as the children mature, says Harriet Shugarman, executive director of climate-advocacy group ClimateMama and author of forthcoming book How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change: Turning Angst Into Action.
Shugarman says she didn’t shy away from using terms like “climate crisis” when her kids were young, but she chose details carefully. As her children grew older, she painted a more complete picture of climate change, always careful to stress that there is action people can take.
Experts like Shugarman and Kubit recommend ongoing, age-appropriate conversations like these that build over time. They don’t identify one specific age to talk about the climate crisis.
“I don’t think there’s a cutoff or age. It’s really going to depend on your child,” Shugarman says, adding that it’s also important to know what’s being taught about climate at your child’s school.
Right now, 20 state departments of education have adopted Next Generation Science Standards, which include guidelines for teaching about human-caused climate change. Depending on the school, either the state or school district enforces these guidelines, says Megan Van Loh, education coordinator for Climate Generation, a nonprofit that provides free climate-focused curriculum to educators. Each has its own way of testing to hold schools accountable. Other states like Minnesota have adopted different (but similar) standards that also require teaching about climate change.
Even so, only about 42 percent of educators in the U.S. actually teach the subject in classrooms, according to the same NPR poll. But more than 80 percent of parents—and 86 percent of teachers—support lessons on human-caused climate change in school curriculum, according to the survey. (The primary reason teachers cited not focusing on climate change is that it’s not related to their subject area.)
Owens says that when it’s time to send her kids to elementary school, she plans to ask about how climate change is being taught.
But until your children are school age, DeMocker suggests that parents look for kids’ literature, video games and movies that explain the subject, in addition to having ongoing conversations.
DeMocker’s nephew was 4 when he told his mom he heard that all animals were going to die due to a warming planet. DeMocker says his mother had a great response to her nephew’s worries: She told him that smart people are working to keep the animals alive, that the planet is resilient and that people can do a lot to make the planet healthy again.
“She did the perfect thing,” DeMocker says. “She reassured him.”
While it’s important to be honest about the climate emergency, Shugarman says it’s vital to keep the conversations solution-oriented to assure kids there are actions people can take to help the planet.
“Don’t lie to your kids about the seriousness of the crisis, but also explain to them how many people are working on it,” she says.
Shugarman suggests providing kids with examples of how scientists and others are trying to combat climate change. Parents also can highlight young people who are advocating for climate action.
She also advises parents to take measures themselves. When her children were young, Shugarman said she’d talk to them about voting, take them to climate rallies and share details about the climate activism she took part in. Even now that her kids are in college, her actions offer solace.
“Showing them that I’m taking action will alleviate some of those feelings of fear,” Shugarman explains.
DeMocker says parents can also relate the climate emergency to topics kids already understand, like plots from popular children’s movies or books. The idea of a hero finding a solution—or taking on a big problem—resonates with kids and creates a positive storyline for them to follow.
“We can take on Voldemort. We can take on the Wicked Witch of the West. I think that’s an important way to story this,” DeMocker says. “There’s something we need to change. We’re not there yet, but we can do it.”
Kubit says creating a plan—like how the family will take action against climate change—is also powerful. Parents can involve kids in picking up trash or washing items like sandwich bags and jars to be reused later.
But even with all the right tools, parents like Owens know that kids are still kids.
Sometimes Owens’ conversations about the changing climate ignite anger or curiosity in her children. Other times, her kids just want to move on to something else—like discussing airplanes.
For now, she talks with them about climate when it makes sense, delivering it in bite-size discussions, knowing that it’s not a one-time talk.
“My hope is that it’s never a one-and-done conversation. It’s a conversation throughout their lives.”