Parenting in an Age of Climate Change: Communicating the Tough Truths to Children

Climate communications takes on a new seriousness when it is one’s own children needing to be communicated with.

There are certain difficult conversations with children that every parent confronts — sex, drugs, illness, death. And then, in every era, there are those terrible events that spring seemingly from nowhere and must be explained: the tragedy at the Boston Marathon, depression, mass shootings, war, genocide.

Climate change offers a unique parenting challenge: a steadily-rolling disaster to which we all contribute, punctuated by periodic events and mounting scientific evidence. It calls into question the very way we live and the world we will leave for our children.

The communications problems involving climate change and climate science are well known, and the messaging only becomes more complex when it is intended for the tender ears of the very young — an audience whose lifespan will stretch toward 2100, the out-years of today’s climate scenarios. It’s a critical group whose understanding of risk is still developing and whose psychology is more delicate than that of most messengers.

Even for parents informed on the issue, the tendency might be to see the topic as too overwhelming or as a purely scientific issue best addressed in school. But some parents argue that it is only fair that children know about, and are given the opportunity to influence, the planet they will inherit.

Photo of Michael Mann
Climate scientist Michael Mann, father of a seven-year-old: ‘can’t wait for them to grow up…it will be too late then.’

“We must inspire them to be part of the solution,” said Michael Mann, the well-known meteorology professor and climate scientist at Penn State and father of a seven-year-old daughter, “but we can’t wait for them to grow up — it will be too late then.”

A growing number of parent activists — or parents turned activists — are joining forces to build a platform for change on behalf of their children. Parents, after all, have a kind of moral authority that can be a significant asset.

“Given the scale of the problem and how much is required of us as a society, we need parents to exercise their voices,” said Lisa Hoyos, co-founder of Climate Parents. “I really strongly believe that parents, once they understand the issue, care more than anyone.”

Research in the area is evolving; education is ramping up; and journalists and activists are increasingly aware of this  monumental generational hand-off. Yet a survey of the civic, media, and research dimensions of the issue reveals that many aspects of this generational problem are only now being carefully considered.

The Schneiders: Family Portrait of an Early Education

One way of thinking about the challenges of communicating on climate with one’s children is to imagine what “ideal” family dynamics might look like. What would a great climate scientist-parent-communicator say to his or her kids? Perhaps there’s no better place to look than to consider the domestic life of one of climate science’s most widely recognized early communicators.

The late Steve Schneider, scientist, parent, and communicator all in one.

When Stanford scientist Stephen Schneider‘s son Adam was just five or six, he was already being taught about science and critical thinking. Daughter Becca remembers her father coming into her second-grade classroom to explain the basics of physics: “He always turned everything into a teaching experience.”

She didn’t think global warming was something she should be “scared” of, she says, and she now recalls her father taking small educational steps, introducing new concepts: “One of the reasons we were able to grasp these things is that he started us fairly early.” They each say that as Schneider’s children, they saw up close what it meant for a parent to practice what he preached and instill environmental ethics.

Adam, 31, now a Ph.D. candidate studying archaeology at University of California, San Diego, and Becca Schneider (now Cherba), a 32-year-old Stanford graduate with a four-year-old child, grew up during the 1980s, in the infancy of climate science. Both recount early years full of family lessons that allowed them to examine evidence and arrive at conclusions.

The charismatic Schneider, who died in 2010 at age 65 after a storied career, would educate his children about the greenhouse effect using the analogy of a car windshield on a hot day. He took the kids to glaciers and other relevant places in the natural world in an attempt to make lessons more concrete. He even remodeled his home to exemplify the virtues of energy efficiency, turning his family domain into a living lesson and bringing his children along to go buy low-flow toilets. His personal theme song was “Teach Your Children,” written by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the song remains a standard at events memorializing Schneider and his work. His widower wife — Stanford scientist Terry Root — continues to well-up at the sound of the piece.

“He didn’t really sugarcoat things,” said Adam Schneider, whose own academic work relates to ancient climate conditions. “He gave us enough detail that [global warming] was a serious problem.” And the lessons his father imparted were, at bottom, about respecting truth: “One thing he really prided himself on was that you have to be honest about these things. You have to trust [children]. And you can’t spoon-feed them so that it reduces the reality.”

The Science of Family Life: Hope and Optimism and a Brighter Future

Other climate scientists are confronting an ever-more acute reality with their younger children.

Mann, whose book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars ends with a discussion of his daughter, told The Yale Forum about his child’s first introduction to environmental perils:

My daughter cried the first time she read the Lorax [at age six]. We explained to her why the book actually ends on a hopeful note. And so I think we must gradually introduce our children to the natural world and the environment, and the threats to it that currently exist because of what we are doing. But we must provide hope and optimism, make sure they can envision a brighter future.

The magazine Mothering even took notice of the emotional ending of Mann’s book.

Scientist Richard Alley tried to avoid getting ‘too depressing.’

Geologist Richard Alley, a Penn State colleague of Mann’s, also said that his life’s work and his parenting have had a rich intersection, as he shared his own journey with his children:

I had a very strange “advantage” for introducing the topic. When the girls were young, I traveled frequently, to Greenland, or sometimes Alaska or various meetings, all related in some way to climate change. They would ask where I was going and what I was doing, and I’d tell them which way, and how far, and what it would be like, and how beautiful it was, and that I’d be careful and bring home lots of pictures. But, I also told them that I was going because it was a good thing, that understanding how the world works would be good for people, because I was helping learn the history of Earth’s climate to guide wise decisions for the future. The link from past to future is easy for almost everyone to understand — we remember what worked or didn’t work in the past and use it to guide us, so the history of Earth’s climate is a good thing to have. They grew with my understanding, and I don’t think I ever got too depressing.

Still, not properly framed, the issue of massive climatic changes can alarm children, experts say. The very phrases often used to discuss climate change — for example, “the point of no return” — are enough to evoke fear in children and parents alike.

Climate Psychology and Child Response

Rajiv Rimal, a public health expert now at George Washington University, suggests that parents be thoughtful about what they say and do, as their beliefs about climate change exert a powerful influence. “How parents think about risks to the environment and what people can do seems to be mirrored by adolescent kids,” he told The Yale Forum.

Public health expert Rajiv Rimal: Need to link risks with strategies for finding benefits.

Rimal was one of the researchers who produced a notable 2012 study on the subject, published in the Atlantic Journal of Communication. It examined the relationship between parents and children in terms of climate change awareness and drew inferences about the factors that could encourage adolescents to seek more information and take action.

Based on a survey of more than 1,500 parents — and more than 500 households where children and parents responded to questions — the findings highlight the influence of parents on adolescents’ engagement on climate change. The researchers, from George Mason, Johns Hopkins and Yale, found that “adolescents’ perceptions of risk and efficacy closely mirrored those of their parents. In particular, parents classified in the indifference (low risk, weak efficacy) and responsive (high risk, high efficacy) groups were significantly more likely to have adolescents belonging to the same groups.”

Rimal said that “scaring people can be counterproductive.” To avoid a sense of despondency, Dr. Rimal stressed the importance for parents, educators and the media to link risk information with strategies and promote the multi-faceted benefits — for example economic and health benefits — of these strategies. In particular, he mentioned regulating the thermostat, considering climate impact when purchasing food, carpooling, and reducing the number of laundry and dishwasher loads.

Executing these smaller behavior changes in homes might make larger, society-wide solutions seem more attainable to children.

Research in this area is not in complete agreement. For example, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “How Do Children Cope with Global Climate Change? Coping Strategies, Engagement, and Well-being,” analyzed the results of a survey of about 300 twelve year olds in Sweden and found that encouraging children to take action should be coupled with “meaning-based” teachings, whereby kids can activate positive emotions, as well:

… [T]o use a high degree of problem-focused coping (e.g., searching for information about what one as a child can do about climate change) seems to have both positive and negative consequences. If the goal is to encourage pro-environmental behavior and environmental efficacy, then it seems that a useful strategy would be to help children cope with climate change through problem-focused coping. This result is supported by a study conducted on adults…. However, in the present study, children who used problem-focused coping to a large extent also had a tendency to feel a high degree of general negative affect; that is, to experience anxious and depressive feelings in their everyday life. This is in accordance with researchers who argue that problem-focused coping concerning stressors that are relatively uncontrollable, such as societal problems, could be associated with lower mental well-being.

In any case, a 2010 American Psychological Association report titled “Psychology and Global Climate Change: Addressing a Multi-faceted Phenomenon and Set of Challenges,” affirms the reality of these psychological dangers and pitfalls. It states that “when determining those most vulnerable to psychosocial impacts of climate change, previous research on disaster intervention identified groups likely to be at greater psychosocial risk, including children….”

The Role of Media and Civic Learning

Promoting mass scientific literary — and climate change literacy, in particular — remains a huge challenge in the United States. Some media outlets such as PBS have tried to bridge this public education gap (even spotlighting how science is being taught at the secondary school level) through series such as “Coping with Climate Change” and Alley’s “Earth: The Operator’s Manual.” The media output on the topic is substantial, but relatively few media segments target the specific dynamics between parents and children.

In the civic learning space more broadly, organizations such as Scholastic have tips for parents communicating with children of various ages. Many environmental organizations also have a variety of resources and programs for kids.

The rough-and-tumble world of media on climate change, of course, is not an unqualified good in terms of advancing understanding, and the dynamics can be particularly confusing for kids.

In a 2010 address to the National Science Teachers Association, Lynne Cherry, author and director of the Young Voices on Climate Change films, put forward the following prescription for dealing with climate change issues and the sometimes-pernicious influence of media:

How we can respond to the current onslaught against climate change in the media? We can “inoculate” kids by having them not just learning about climate science but actually going outdoors and doing climate science. Then, any student involved in these school-based citizen-science projects would be able to come home and explain to their parents, “Mom and Dad, we’ve been collecting data about these birds in school and we’re comparing that data with baseline data from years ago. And from that older baseline data we know which birds were here before and we can see with our own eyes that the birds are moving north. We’re correlating their range changes with temperature changes — so we know the birds are responding to climate change.” In this way, the kids can explain climate science to their parents.

A Warming Science Climate in Education?

Some parents might instinctively feel it best to leave climate discussions to school science teachers, not recognizing the uneven state of climate science education in many schools or spillover of this “scientific” issue into everyday life.

“Climate change is often not taught at all, skimmed over, taught in a hesitant way or cast as a controversy,” Mark McCaffrey, of National Center for Science Education, told The Yale Forum. “Right now we have a hodgepodge of different standards so kids may never learn the basics because they miss the course it is taught in, or their family moves…. It is so interdisciplinary; it fits in with middle school earth science, but it also needs to be addressed in biology and chemistry.”

According to the National Center for Science Education, roughly two-thirds of students report not being taught about climate change. Other students learn that climate change is “just a theory” or that there are two equal and opposing scientific sides to the issue.

There is frequently a practical disconnect for students — one similar to health education about smoking — where young people learn about climate change and solutions at school and return home to parents driving SUVs and leaving the lights on throughout the house.

However, there is also evidence that what students learn at school might have a positive impact on families’ carbon footprints. “We can hypothesize that what kids learn in school is a source of influence in the home,” said Rimal, of George Washington University. “Interventions in schools empower kids with particular things to ask parents to do.”

On April 9, the National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Achieve released the Next Generation Science Standards, a collaborative effort that was led by teachers and civic leaders from 26 states. For the first time the science standards highlight anthropogenic climate change, and the foundations for that education begin in kindergarten. (See related story.)

The voluntary nature of the Next Generation Science Standards means a separate, potentially controversial and lengthy, adoption process from state to state. Once adopted, states will need to develop curricula and professional development around the standards.

Parents can play a strong role, climate education advocates say, in facilitating the adoption of those standards and development of robust curricula in their states and states across the country. Supportive parents also can stand up for teachers who may face political pressures or resistance from parents, the community, and even other teachers and administration, within the school.

“It is important for parents to engage with schools and teachers, tell teachers we have their backs in teaching climate change,” McCaffrey said.

Community Activism: Parents and the Climate

Finally, it is significant — and perhaps of particular interest for media looking to localize this issue — that parents are beginning to organize to defend children’s right to know about climate change. They are framing reducing greenhouse gas emissions as a fundamental right for their children.

Lisa Hoyos, Climate Parents co-founder, with her children.

Organizations such as Climate Parents, Moms Clean Air Task Force and Mothers Out Front are gathering followings on the Internet, organizing and showing up at rallies, and getting  involved with climate change issues in local, state, and national politics.

The groups are mobilizing at the parent level, reminiscent, some say, of parent activist groups that protested nuclear weapon proliferation and the Vietnam War.

“Parents are like mama and papa bears when something threatens their cubs, but the climate issue hasn’t penetrated most people’s minds,” Hoyos, of Climate Parents, said. “You want to forget it or pretend its not there, but there are great changes being made all the time. There is no reason we can’t organize, and make huge transformations.”

Vanessa Rule, lead organizer of Mothers Out Front, a program of the Better Future Project, said there are a variety of actions parents can take. “Parents have a huge role to play in safeguarding their children’s future,” she said. Rule suggests that this role might include: raising awareness to friend networks about threats climate change presents; using their moral authority at many levels of civic life; and asking business and political leaders to take action.

Teaching children about climate may mean parents need to educate themselves. “Just like we learn about BPA and baby bottles, part of our parent IQ needs to become clean energy and climate science,” Hoyos said. “The next step is grassroots education to ensure that parents understand the issue.”

That sentiment is one that echoes down through the generations, from the first parents who dealt with the issue to those confronting it today.

Adam Schneider, son of the Stanford scientist, also said “you also have to educate yourself,” as the most important thing is being able to teach scientific thinking to children. “If we want to be different than the deniers, we have to give children the evidence so they can see it themselves,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re no better than they are.”

A delicate balance between conveying the seriousness of the problem and giving tools; a tricky dance between alarm and hope. Passing the generational torch on climate is no easy business. At many levels, it requires a new parenting paradigm, one that “protects” children by candidly admitting our collective failures and asking them to help: To paraphrase song-writer Graham Nash, it’s about those of tender years knowing a little more about “the fears that your elders grew by.”

AUTHORS
Allison Guerette is a freelance writer and Environmental Analyst at the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM). John Wihbey is a frequent contributor to the Forum. E-mails: allisonguerette @ gmail.com and johnwihbey @ gmail.com

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12 Responses to Parenting in an Age of Climate Change: Communicating the Tough Truths to Children

  1. There is no indication that the climate is getting “worse.”

    In 1900, 10,000 people died in a storm surge in Texas. In 1780, a hurricane killed 35,000 people. 1930s drought forced half the population out of Oklahoma.

    Enough superstition, please.

    • Leiran says:

      Steve, you raise an interesting point. Those anecdotes are compelling. This is why scientists rely on weight-of-evidence approaches rather than on simple anecdotal evidence. By examining a small subset of anecdotes, you fail to see the larger picture. That’s where the weight-of-evidence clearly indicates that there’s a significant problem. Severity of weather events is not the only indicator of climate change, but it is one, and we are seeing increased frequency of severe weather events. We are also seeing dramatic global atmospheric warming, coinciding with rapid melting of the arctic and antarctic ice sheets. Underpinning all of this evidence is our understanding of physics, which point to a causal relationship between greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and the global temperature. Anecdotes aside, if you cannot support your hypothesis using basic physics, you cannot make a credible argument. That’s what separates “superstition” from science.

    • Shredder says:

      That’s your “evidence”? A couple of big storms and a drought a long time ago? Better do your homework. Climate change is happening, it’s caused by burning greenhouse gases, and we need to deal with it now before it accelerates out of control. There is overwhelming consensus on these facts.

  2. John Shade says:

    Quote “Climate change offers a unique parenting challenge: a steadily-rolling disaster to which we all contribute, punctuated by periodic events and mounting scientific evidence. It calls into question the very way we live and the world we will leave for our children.”

    Well, the absence of warming over most of the past two decades does not look to me like a ‘steadily-rolling disaster’, nor does the drop in hurricane activity, nor does the absence of anything extraordinary happening anywhere in weather, ice extents, or sea levels and temperatures.

    We most assuredly will face climate-linked challenges in the years to come – we always have and we always will. But I rather think we would be better prepared to deal with them by doing more of the most successful ‘way to live’ the world has ever seen.

    I think you would all do better to leave the children out of this squabble, and try your best to protect their childhood from political interference.

    • Leiran says:

      The “facts” that you so confidently cite are incorrect. You need evidence to support facts. Here’s the evidence: http://climate.nasa.gov/key_indicators#globalTemp

      Also, climate change occurs over many decades, not just the last two. The data clearly indicate that we are in the middle of a dramatic global temperature increase that has coincided with the industrial revolution. There’s no squabble. Scientists overwhelmingly agree with this conclusion. Now it is the job of the politicians to determine how to deal with it.

  3. As a parent of a 10 year old and concerned planetary citizen, I am very thankful for your article which is grounded in both scientific reality and skillful child psychology (e.g. balancing hope with truth). I would also add that for others reading this article, if you are swayed by some of the comments to the article, wondering if climate change is a liberal hoax, it’s not. The climate denial movement is heavily funded (think hundreds of millions of dollars) by groups like Koch Industries and others who desperately work to sow the seeds of doubt so a few can continue to profit even as the planet is being destroyed. Consider this website: http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ if you are in doubt regarding evidence of a radically warming planet.

    • Barry Woods says:

      if you have any evidence for HUNDREDS of millions of dollars, please lets see it..

  4. Paul Quigg says:

    Climate change is not a scientific problem. It is an economic, political, psychological and scientific problem. Any understanding of climate change which ignores any of these areas will fail to convey this incredibly complex subject. My study on this subject finds that very few take a comprehensive view, they ignore or trivialize points of view that are outside their area of expertise or they accept as valid any findings which support their arguments. Sincere scientists believing deeply in the perils of future warming are scaring the hell out of everyone while ignoring the most basic theories of economics, politics and psychology. The Stern Review, an official document of the english government, the UNIPCC, and others spends pages and pages rationalizing why we must ignore “time discounting”, which is one of the most fundamental theories of economics and psychology, and then state, quite frankly, that if time discounting is valid their is no reason to fight climate change. Germany’s irrational decision to phase out nuclear and burn more coal is quite rational from an economic standpoint, their heavy commitment in solar in their northern latitude is irrational from an economic and scientific standpoint, and the “green” community has praised their billions of euros while it has produced very little consummable energy. I am sitting across from my 16 year old granddaughter as she does her homework and I must be very careful to not scare her out of her wits with threats of catastrophic events, tipping points and “ends of the world as we know it” when we are doing such a poor job with mitigation. In my 60 years of environmental activism I have lived through thousands of tipping points and I am confident she will do the same.

  5. http://www.theboywhodeniedwolf.com/

    Rewritten, suitable to read to your child.

  6. Barry Woods says:

    Leave the kids alone?

    Psychotherapist Ro Randall: Should we be working with children about climate change?

    http://rorandall.org/2011/03/23/should-we-be-working-with-children-about-climate-change/

    “Climate change community groups often want to work with children. ‘We must get into the schools,’ says someone and there is a nod of agreement. It’s worth thinking about the psychology behind this.

    Why is this idea so appealing?

    And why is it so damaging?

    —————————————————
    this is well worth a read.. some extracts:
    ————————————————-

    “The reasons given for working with children are usually two-fold:

    We need to influence them while they are young. If they understand the issue and the effect of their actions, they will grow up finding it natural to care for the environment.
    It’s a good way of getting to their parents. Who can resist their child pleading with them to change the lightbulbs because it will save a polar bear?
    The damage

    Both reasons are suspect. The first reason assumes that instruction – at best participatory, at worst didactic – is the route either to action or to the inculcation of positive values towards the environment. There is little evidence for this. We know that information based campaigns have a limited impact with adults, so why should we expect children to be different? As for values – these tend to be formed through experience, relationship, identification and social systems, not through information. If the school has an influence on values it will be through its culture, ethos and the relationships and experiences it offers not through the information it provides.

    Both reasons also raise direct ethical questions. It is easy to engage the sympathies of children with stories of damage to the natural world and images of suffering animals they will identify with. But children have very little power. Of all the sections of society who might make an impact on climate change, they have the least influence, the least agency, the least leverage. There is a real risk of raising levels of anxiety amongst children that will not only cause distress in the immediate term but will in the long term lead to those children turning against the environmental causes we hoped they might espouse.”

    ————————————————

    Ro Randall is very much a climate activist, founder of Carbon Conversations and part of the Climate Psychology alliance.
    http://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/about-us-main-page/sg-test2/

    Her son was even Kiribati’s climate representative (Un Fair Play) at Copenhagen
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/2013-prediction-climate-change-cop18

  7. John Garrett says:

    Episodes of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds are much more to be feared than scientific conjectures based on equivocal and ambiguous empirical data.