September 18, 2013

Let's Talk with Our Children about Global Warming, with Sense and Sensitivity

There are a lot of myths, misinformation and outright lies out there about sex. That's why parents talk with our children about it: to enable them to make informed decisions, and so they know not to believe in outlandish notions like "you can't get pregnant if it's your first time", or "drinking Mountain Dew will prevent pregnancy". (I am not making this up; more common myths about sex here).

Similarly, there are a lot of myths, misinformation and outright lies out there about global warming. "We humans didn't do it", or "Even the scientists are confused about it", or "It's not happening".

But global warming is happening, and climate scientists agree that we humans are causing it. And since it is our children (and their children) who will have to bear the consequences, the least we can do is to give them the straight dope. While not depriving them of hope.

So let us talk with our children about global warming, and let's do that with respect and sensitivity: to who they are, to how old they are, to their emotional wellbeing. Let us first listen to them, get a sense of what they already know, and go from there. Just like when we talk with them about sex.

Our youngest children may not be concerned with such big issues; that's okay. If they do bring it up, they need to hear, through the answers we give, that we - their parents and other adults in their lives - will protect them and keep them safe. Some people define "very young" as pre-grade-school age, but I like to put that boundary at about 9 years: that is the time that children tend to discover their individuality (basically they wake up one day and find that their umbilical cord is gone), a disturbing stage that can cause a lot of anxiety.

After that their rational thinking really kicks in and it's easier to explain the science to them, even if it's best if you quote examples from everyday life, e.g. illustrating global warming by talking about what happens when you leave a car (a good hothouse) in the sun.

Teenagers in high school are awake to the broader social realm, and one can talk to them about their role as citizens of the planet and their country, besides discussing the science and news items on climate change.

There is now a plethora of books, movies, documentaries and websites dedicated to explaining climate change to children: if we do our parental homework we can select the ones that will work best for our particular child.

We don't want to tell lies to our children, and we don't want to minimise or deny the seriousness of our predicament. But we also don't want to fill them with despair. So it's important to present some points of light in the otherwise grim story of global warming and climate change.

In particular, let's quash the notion that "it's too late" to do something about it: Because while some effects of global warming will be with us for a long time, it's certainly never too late to prevent things from getting worse.

For encouragement, try reading Sandra Steingraber's piece in Orion Magazine about talking to children about climate change: it is poignant, funny, and inspiring.

But even more inspiring to me is a comment to that article, left by Nancy Schimmel, a storyteller who has contributed to the Green Songbook, a collection of songs and resources whose focus is caring for the Earth. Fittingly, the comment starts with a story:

"Back when nuclear weapons was the big scare, a Seattle teacher asked her third-graders whether they thought there would be a nuclear war. All but one did. She complimented the hold-out on her bravery in voicing a minority-of-one opinion, and asked why she held it. “Because my parents are working to stop it,” the child answered."

Not all of us spend our time kicking Exxon in the teeth, or organising a local chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby; but we can still point to people who do. And we can point to our own positive actions, whether that is writing to our representatives, or conserving energy by turning down the thermostat in our homes in winter. I hope you have a long list of your own.

It's the same way in which, when our children see images of disasters like big fires, or shootings, we try to keep them from getting overwhelmed by anxiety, by pointing out the helping people: firefighters, police, strangers helping strangers, teachers leading children to safety.

By the same token, finger pointing is not productive. "It's the oil companies' fault". Or, "It's those Chinese with their coal burning plants." Or, "It's those selfish lazy people in their big SUVs." Our children don't need to hear such negativity, they need to hear of how people work together to forge solutions.

So let us not forget to add how our child can do his or her bit to help out the planet. Getting them involved in whatever way they can contribute is immensely empowering.

Because as parents we want our children to look to their future without hate, without paralysing fear, but with hope.



The Australian Psychological Society has published "Talking with children about the environment", a great resource full of practical, age-specific tips, including guiding children on what they can do to help the planet.

Skeptical Science is the go-to website for all the correct information on climate science. Very up to date.

"Earth, the Climate Wars" is a BBC documentary in three hourlong segments, great for middle schoolers and up. It's hosted by Iain Stewart who has a thick Scottish accent but who, as a scientist, really unpacks both the climate science and the controversy in a clear way. There is a great visual demonstration (part 1, minute 20) of how carbon dioxide traps heat.


Shared at Tuesday Greens, Small Footprint Fridays, Anktangle's Friday Favorites and Simply Natural Saturdays



  1. My wife and I have been talking to our kids since they could talk about green living, saving energy, climate change, science and what we can do about it. I think waiting to start talking to them about climate change until they are 9 is way too late.

    We have dozens of posts about teaching our kids about the topic on our blog, but one of our first posts from 4 years ago sums it up pretty well.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan, and that's a great post on getting your children along on your green journey! (but it doesn't mention climate change - maybe you meant a different post?).

      I agree with you that you can't start too early with teaching your children to be green. But climate change is overwhelmingly scary (even to grownups), so I think easy is the way to go. I think it's okay to say, if prompted by a four-year-old, that the planet caught a fever: they know fever, and that you can recover from it. But I would omit the geochemistry, the freaky weather and the possible food shortages, just like one would postpone talking about the mechanics of sex, until they are ready for it. In both cases, when they are ready depends on the child, and the parents would know best when the time is ripe.

  2. Excellent post, CelloMom! Kids are smart and their capacity for understanding and making sense of things is truly amazing. I love the idea of having the climate change "talk" ... after all, they are our hope and the ones who will truly make a difference.

    1. Thanks, SF! Children really are smart, and also have a deep connection with nature that we grownups might have forgotten. And yes, they are our future.

  3. Great post. Thanks for sharing these resources. We haven't done any talking about climate change with our kids yet (they are 4 and 2) but we have talked about other ways to help the planet. Will have to keep these resources in mind for when they are a bit older! :-)

  4. Excellent post. This is the first post I've read from your blog. I definitely want to read more of them now!


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