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Modern schoolkids don’t just use computers more than their parents’ generation did. They don’t just acquire less ingrained homophobia than previous generations. They don’t just use American slang more than ever. They’re also learning about the new taboo.
Picture the scene: a frightened look from your oldest. A cuddle.
“I learned about CO2 in school. Cars make CO2. Burgers make CO2. The icebergs are melting so all the polar bears drown. It makes floods.”
Children are rightly learning in class about climate change, a subject many adults struggle to talk about among themselves, let alone to their children.
Parents have long struggled to find the language to explain death, war and (oh no!) sex to their children. Many avoid doing so for as long as possible. But the severity of the climate crisis, and its impact on future generations, ought to preclude a “say nothing, do nothing” approach. So how should parents respond, when their child, still in early primary school, says they are frightened because CO2 is causing lots of problems and is expected to get much worse?
There are a number of tempting responses, but none of them are straightforward, especially when we have to distill our thoughts into language that makes sense to a young child. All of the possible responses play on our desire, and the child’s need, to believe that things are under control. Let’s look at the possible responses.
1) It’s very complicated
One easy and tempting response is to explain the issue in scientific terms until the child accepts that the problem is for grown-ups to deal with, and that the polar bears might be okay after all. When a child says “CO2 is made by burgers, planes and cars”, a pedantic parent might want to answer “no, it is only beef burgers that make lots of CO2; chicken burgers and fish fingers are pretty safe by comparison. Plus, our car is low-emissions, we only drive short distances, and we book our holidays last minute so the aeroplanes are going to fly anyway. And lots of research is being done to make things better.”
The advantage of this approach is that the child stops feeling directly responsible for the epic disaster of climate change. The child can trust in science and can hope that the problem will resolve itself once all the clever grown-ups have done all the things they know they have to do to fix the problem. It prevents the child from feeling guilty every time they sit in a car or are given a sausage roll. The disadvantage is that, by emphasising the complexity, we downplay the severity of the problem: we are telling both the child and ourselves that the situation is under control. There is plenty of evidence that that is not really true.
2) We can fix this
Many parents try to acknowledge that, while CO2/climate change is a problem, small lifestyle changes by all of us can make a massive difference. This approach might be best summarised by child-friendly truisms such as:
CO2, the new taboo
There’s nothing much that we can do
Just sort your plastics, aluminium too
And hope for less CO2 (Alasdair Duke, 2016).
Is this good enough? It gives children a manageable amount of truth – there is a CO2 problem – and a valid sense that what we each do, as people, can make a small difference for the better. But a family that recycles, turns lights off, or even switches to a vegan diet, cannot prevent climate change on its own. The concept is an appealing one. But individual action does not address the political and global scale of climate change. A wise child might ask “why isn’t everyone doing it?”
3) The real culprit
The real culprits are corporations that mine raw materials, using lawyers, wars and land grabs to get their way. It is quite easy to explain this to a child in lay terms; there are big corporate bogeymen who control everything and have a vested interest in keeping things the same. On the plus side, it gives the child a fairly simple narrative of how everything works, and how money and resources underpin human life. The child can at least feel they are well informed about why polar bears are dying and can comprehend at least one of the reasons why there are so many desperate refugees. The child might decide to join the movement and agitate for change.
The main disadvantage of this approach is that it scares the child shitless. Do you really want to parent a child who is phenomenally angry with everyone, including you for allowing them to be born? A second disadvantage of the “real culprit” approach is that, sooner or later, the child might discover that the force behind the bogeymen is all of us, the workers and consumers who keep the global economy moving. How much anger, powerlessness and guilt can we admit to, and what are the psychological effects of this on children? Another not insignificant issue is that climate crisis offers the perfect tool for rebellion. Why should the child be made to tidy their room when people everywhere are consuming millions of barrels of oil a day, trashing the whole place?
All of the above
Every parent is likely to have to face up to this conversation in the years ahead. There is no accepted consensus on how best to explain climate change to children, to be honest that it is a serious challenge for us all, but without expounding hopelessness and apathy.
Whichever way you tackle the issue, you are at least breaking the silence, and introducing your kids to a world beyond fairytales, supermarket shelves and talking dinosaurs. We all like to retreat into our own world at times, be it through telly, sport or whatever else, and children need escapism more than their parents do. But when they’re ready to ask a question, they’re ready to hear the answer.