I’ve been keeping a pretty big secret from my eco-conscious preschoolers.
My two boys start their days with a viewing of Wild Kratts, a PBS show about fascinating animals around the globe. When I clean up their breakfast, they scold me if I throw away a peel that could have gone into the compost.
When we head out for walks, they hand me every piece of trash they find along the way. I come home with my pockets full of discarded candy wrappers and receipts that were blown away in the wind. If I ever scold them for picking up a piece of trash – for example, that rusty Skoal can half covered in mud – my oldest turns to me and says, “I just wanted to save the earth, Mama.”
But that’s the secret I’ve been keeping from them. They know we are supposed to be kind to the earth, to respect the land we’ve been given and treat it as a gift. They know we recycle paper to save trees and that we walk home from preschool so our car doesn’t pollute the air. They know we make frequent use of hand-me-downs and donate what we no longer need.
But they don’t really know why.
As much as we talk about taking care of our planet, I’ve yet to broach the subject of climate change with them. And unless someone else brings it up first, I don’t plan on doing so for several more years.
While political leaders embroil themselves in debates about reality, our climate is changing before our eyes and endangering the lives of people around the world. Events such as the California drought, wildfires in the Mountain West, blizzards, and hurricanes have landed on our shores, made worse by man-made actions.
Scientists and policymakers in the rest of the world agree that we need to keep the change in global temperature to less than a two-degree Celsius increase above what the average global temperature was prior to the Industrial Revolution. Failure to do so, they warn, could cause rising sea levels, extreme weather events, extinction of plants and animals, and endanger the lives and well-being of millions of people.
Despite my boys’ fervent interest in saving the earth, I can’t bring myself to tell them about the danger looming over their future. It would be akin to teaching them to read, and then telling them that all libraries will close before they even grow up. I want to give them a few more years to fall in love with the natural world before they hear the grim truth about their fated romance.
Educators disagree about the appropriateness of teaching climate change to children. Some argue that it is our duty to give children an age-appropriate – yet full – picture of the crisis. Others contend that no tragedies should be taught before fourth grade, instead first allowing kids a chance to develop a relationship with nature. Parents, likewise, take a variety of approaches to the issue, either avoiding it outright or engaging in frank discussions about the problem.
Psychologists warn that the anxiety surrounding climate change can negatively impact people’s mental health. For children who have even less ability to change their circumstances than adults, that added anxiety seems, to me, an unnecessary burden.
Like many four-year-olds, my son will become obsessed with a topic for a few days or weeks at a time. Last week, it was “tree problems,” a topic I am not even remotely sure where he picked up. He begged me for days to tell him stories about trees, and so I indulged.
I told him about the pine beetle infestation that had spread through the mountains around our home, killing millions of pine trees in its wake. I told him about the near-extinction and subsequent revitalization of the American Chestnut in the Appalachians, whose seedlings I had helped plant as a girl. After days of talking about nothing other than trees, I thought he might enjoy reading the Lorax.
At the end, he got very quiet. “Mama,” he said. “What would we ever do if the earth got really, really sick?”
I promised him we would take care of it, while saying a silent prayer that our leaders actually will. But the smallness of his voice convinced me he still is not ready to talk about climate change.
Avoiding this one environmental issue – the most pressing of them all – doesn’t mean that parents can’t discuss care for the environment with children. Our children can’t fully comprehend the gravity of climate change. Even if they could, there is little they could do to significantly reduce global emissions.
Children, however, will happily turn off the water while they brush their teeth “to leave some in the river for the fishies.” They will carry cloth bags into the grocery store, knowing the plastic ones can too easily end up in the ocean or in a tree. And they will joyfully toss recyclables into the bin, not just for the fun of throwing something, but so that tin can won’t end up taking up space in a landfill. These actions have concrete benefits kids can visualize, helping them to become lifelong stewards of the earth.
My sons love stories about endangered species, though I carefully tell only success stories about animals that have been brought back from the brink of extinction: bison, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, wolves. I want them to believe in happy endings – in a world where people help, not harm. Perhaps it will give them the confidence and conviction they need to help us solve this climate crisis in the future.
And perhaps, by the time they are old enough to understand the truth, the story will be different. I hope then to tell them about a crisis we once faced but successfully averted by deciding to believe in truth, to act together, and to leave behind a better world for them, our children.