Talking to children about tricky topics such as climate change
Engaging in talk about the climate crisis is helping our daughter to develop effective life skills – and I’m doing plenty of learning too
Our daughter was asking why the planet is in danger – which led me to two questions. Is the planet actually in danger? If so, why? In trying to establish answers to these questions my problems were just beginning
Being a parent is complicated enough as we support our children through their childhood and into what we hope will be happy and fulfilling lives as adults. Dealing with their questions and thinking about their future is a key part of what we do.
When our 8-year-old daughter asked me, “dad, why is the planet in danger? I really want to have a future” my jaw hit the floor. I didn’t see that coming.
As I did my homework to catch up with her I realised that the future that is unfolding for her may look very different to the one that I had imagined. How does a conversation like this work? What am I supposed to say that is realistic, age-appropriate and helpful?
These are big questions and there are plenty more – I discovered that thinking about them could be pretty overwhelming. As I started my journey of learning about how we could talk together about this difficult subject, I came across some useful ideas, and have been learning by trial and error about how to ask some equally useful questions to develop our conversations. There are a lot of ideas out there – here are some common themes and questions that I found handy.
As with any problem it’s important to establish the facts, where we stand and how we feel about it. Trying to do my homework thoroughly I asked myself “what are scientists saying about climate change and how am I able to work out what is factual?” Our daughter was asking why the planet is in danger – which led me to two questions. Is the planet actually in danger? If so, why? In trying to establish answers to these questions my problems were just beginning! There’s an astonishing amount of information out there pulling in different directions. I quickly began to feel overwhelmed not just by the nature of the information itself but also by the sheer volume of it. Our daughter did not need to see me flapping around about this – not a hugely reassuring sight. I realised that I needed to develop some ways of staying calm in a storm.
Self-care and resilience
A regular theme that I found was that many people had experienced feeling overwhelmed and a whole range of other emotions too. Some reported bouncing between denying that there was a problem and experiencing fretfully sleepless nights. Staying healthy and being emotionally resilient are absolutely essential to talking with our children about such a tricky topic. I quickly realised that I needed to take a lead and set an example. I had to ask myself “what can I do that is healthy and keeps me going through hard times?” This question could also help our daughter find her own ways of getting through things that are tough. Guinea pigs have featured heavily in her strategies.
Community and connection
One of the earliest bits of advice I was given was “don’t do this on your own – talk with other people”. This wasn’t going to be easy – let’s face it “is the planet dying?” is not a great opener. I asked myself “who else is worried about this? Who’s further along this journey than me and what have they learned?” As I started to broach the subject with others I realised that I’m not alone. This will be hugely useful information for our daughter – we’re not on our own, other people are talking about this and are doing good things. One of the things that other people were doing was strengthening their and their children’s connection with the natural world in a whole load of creative and simple ways. This is both part of staying resilient and helping children to develop a relationship with the environment that is caring and thoughtful. They can use this to build ideas for what they could do to help. Looks like I haven’t dodged the bullet of doing some gardening and getting my hands muddy after all.
Achievable action based, realistic goals, useful questions
I’d soon learned that climate change and its impacts are very complex and emotive subjects. I could see a strong possibility of unrealistic goals, tokenistic action or just blind panic. Someone asked me a great question – “given your worries about the climate and the future, what are your best hopes for your daughter?” See what I mean about talking to other people? I started to think about realistic hopes that we could build on, and this is certainly a question that is adaptable for our daughter. Our family could start to develop a vision of our future that took account of what’s happening. Our daughter often asks “what are we doing next?” – she likes to keep busy. There’s another useful question – “what’s the next smallest thing that you could do to move towards that future?” She also likes to ask “what else?” That question will come in handy when I think that I’ve done a wonderful thing and, bowing, start looking for the round of applause. Walking to the shops rather than driving was just the start of it.
David Attenborough and others have made it pretty clear that everyone needs to make drastic lifestyle changes. Some of those steps towards that hoped-for future were going to feel big. These weren’t going to be merely changes that we’re comfortable with. We were going to need some useful questions to help us out. A useful principle I found is basically summarised as – give up doing all the stuff that’s contributing to the problem, take up doing any stuff that will be useful, carry on doing stuff that’s already useful. Which gave us three handy questions – what do I need to stop doing in order to pave the way for a safe and sustainable future for my children and their children? What do I need to start doing instead? What am I already doing that I can build on and keep going? Essentially I realised that our daughter needs to see us doing many things differently. She’ll definitely notice and start asking questions – kids are good at that sort of thing – which hopefully will help us to talk more as time goes on.
I wish that I could say “all you need to do is…” There are plenty of ideas out there, but I’ve had to develop my own response to what’s unfolding. I have realised that engaging with talking about the climate crisis is yielding the benefits of helping our daughter to develop some really effective life skills and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m doing plenty of learning too. It has also shown me that I could learn a trick or two by looking at the world and the future through children’s eyes.
Fred Ehresmann is senior UK trainer for Parents Plus Charity and senior lecturer in mental health at the University of the West of England. More information on topics mentioned in this article can be found at barefootparent.com