In a world of Greta Thunberg, the ever-looming threat of climate change, and its already disastrous toll, what can you do to ensure your kids understand the state of the world, without overwhelming them, and help them become part of the solution?
The good news is, many young people are already alert to the climate rumblings around them. “They’re more aware today of these broader, complex socio-scientific issues than we think even our generation was when we were younger,” says Carol O’Donnell, the director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center in Washington, D.C.
She thinks that’s because we now have more evidence to show that humans are negatively impacting the environment, pointing to the consensus among 97 percent or more of climate scientists on this conclusion.
“We have evidence that we are depleting a lot of the resources that we know are necessary for us to live in the way we do,” says O’Donnell.
She wants the Science Education Center’s audience of pre-school through high school students to use that knowledge to develop more sustainable habits, whether it’s via conserving electricity or buying less plastic.
We spoke with experts to learn how parents and caregivers can juggle the balance between not scaring kids about the future of our planet, while also teaching them sustainable habits that will serve us all well in both the short and long term.
1. Motivate your child to explore
“We should be encouraging exploratory, action-oriented learning,” says O’Donnell, “whether that learning takes place in the home or in the community in an informal environment, like at a museum, or whether it takes place in school.”
The action part kicks in when you use the information you gleaned about the world to make a shift in how you live. For example, if your child learns about clean water resources, she might use that new information to take shorter showers or turn the sink off while she brushes her teeth. By encouraging your children to explore nature (if you’re in a city, you also have a valuable learning tool with public parks), they can understand how its systems work and the daily impact they have on the Earth’s resources. Making this connection can motivate them to change their behavior.
“Do something with that information to make a difference,” says O’Donnell.
2. Ask questions, but let children observe what’s around them
If you’re on a walk with your child, try asking, “What do you notice?” suggests O’Donnell. A child might say, “It looks like there used to be water there,” or “the trees were cut down.” Or if you’re in the car or riding public transportation together, you might ask, “What do you think powers our vehicle and where do you think that energy comes from?”
To help inspire children’s own observations about the world, you might then ask, “Why do you think that is?” or “Do you have any questions about why that might be?”
“Then you start to dig into the science,” explains O’Donnell. Help your child understand, following the first example, where the water came from, why it’s no longer there, what humans may have done to impact the water’s disappearance, and what we can do differently in the future.
“Parents will learn from those conversations just as much as children do,” says O’Donnell.
3. Talk about sustainability from a local perspective to connect it to global issues
Most children are more likely to understand large, global issues when they can first learn about them locally, says O’Donnell.
To return to the water example, a parent might inform her child that the reason the water dried up is because their town constructed a dam upstream, blocking the flow of water, to provide hydroelectricity and the jobs that go with it. This can lead a child to consider the economic side of an issue as well as the environmental one. If talking abut fossil fuels, you could discuss the cost of oil in your town and what might affect it. This could open up a conversation to introduce your child to geopolitics and how that connects to how much you pay at the pump.
Children, especially the younger they are, are thinking about these problems from their own perspective, says O’Donnell.
“If you’re going to develop students’ sustainable habits, then they have to be driven by local problems, local questions, local observations, and local actions,” says O’Donnell. “And then take those local actions, local decisions, local investigations, and apply them on a broader scale.”
As ever, factor your child’s age and their developmental stage into what topics you introduce, and how you present them.
4. Model the behavior you want
What you do is way more effective than what you say to encourage the behavior you want. If you don’t want your child to use throw away water bottles, you shouldn’t either, says Dr. Chuck Kopczak, a curator at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif., who has a Ph.D. in marine biology and biological oceanography.
Kopczak says the science center is doing that in its own way by trying to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles, partly by replacing sales with boxed water. While not a perfect solution, Kopczak says the center also sells “high quality reusable bottles for sale to guests to use the Science Center’s newly installed water fountain refill stations.”
To use another example, if you’d like your child to understand that fossil fuels are bad for the environment, don’t idle your car when you pick him up after school, suggests Kopczak. These kinds of actions, while seemingly small, can make a big impression on kids and don’t require extra time in your day.
If your child repeats the desired behavior, such as turning off the water while he washes dishes, reward him in some way, but don’t punish him if he forgets, says Kopczak. You can prod your kid in the direction you want but, remember, building a sustainable lifestyle involves habits that take time to set in place.
5. Don’t scare them
Talk honestly to your kids using scientific facts, but be careful not to send them into an anxiety-induced spiral.
“Try not to create the sense that this is the end of the world, but it is a problem that we need to face. That will spread, and they’ll share that with friends,” says Kopczak.
You can use positive examples showing how humanity has worked together to push for progress on a problem, such as closing up the hole in Earth’s ozone layer, or the eradication of smallpox, to inspire confidence.
“We’ve taken on big problems in the past, and we’ve found ways to solve them. This may be the very biggest one we’ve ever faced, because it involves the entire planet, obviously,” says Kopczak. “Convey to them, the more people we can get involved thinking about things we can do, the more likely we are going to find solutions, and they can be a part of that. You don’t have to be a scientist.”
6. Remember: You don’t have to have all the answers
As a parent, you might think you have to know everything — or look like you do — but that’s simply not true.
If your child asks you a question and you don’t have the answer, you can go on a journey together to figure it out, says Lutz.
“Teach kids how to find data,” says Lutz. “[Find] trustworthy sources as opposed to reading some opinion on any given website or newspaper.” You can help guide this practice by helping children learn to vet sources. Ask them to look online for reputable websites, list a few, and ask why they think these particular sites are reliable.
This kind of education helps children figure out how to answer their own questions and not just believe what they’re told, says Lutz. That’s “a sustainable skill for any part of life,” she adds.
7. Keep kids excited to learn and act with these tools
There are also plenty of books, websites, TV shows, and movies kids can dive into to learn and inspire them to live a more sustainable lifestyle, in addition to relying on you as their teacher. We’ve listed links to resources recommended by our experts below, categorized by type.
There’s the animated series The Octonauts, aimed at preschoolers, “that encourages kids’ curiosity about the world by introducing them to some of the sea’s diverse species,” according to a review by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates movies, TV shows, and books for parents. It’s currently available to watch on Netflix.
Or if your child wants to take a break from a screen, there’s the picture book The Watcher, which introduces young kids to the primatologist Jane Goodall, beginning with her childhood, all the way up to her life-long mission to preserve chimpanzees’ habitats.
If you’re looking for something a little more active, you can check out UNESCO’s webpage on the sustainable development goals’ resources for educators, which includes activities and games to help children to learn about topics like water pollution.
You know your child best, so you can, of course, use your judgement regarding whether something is appropriate for your kid’s learning style and developmental stage.