Last week, amid snow squalls and the frenetic juggling of school night activities and meals, my family and I headed down the mountain to attend a talk for parents & kids, Empowering Youth to Engage in our Climate Crisis, hosted by a local independent school and featuring climate activist Bill McKibben.
I was both heartened and heartbroken to see that room filled with kids and parents.
Bill’s talk shared the inspiring work that the organization he co-founded, 350.org, is doing around the globe.
Yet I left wishing that more concrete and local suggestions had been given. This gathering can’t be the beginning and end of the conversation.
So at about 1:00am that night I finally admitted that sleep was eluding me, and decided I needed to get my thoughts out on paper. I wrote the remainder of this blog post and sent it off as a Letter to the Editor to my local newspaper (it was printed in today’s edition!) and was finally sound asleep by 2am. Because our steadfast little paper requires a subscription to see my letter online, I decided to publish it here…see below.
I am drawing on my background as an educator and my work in Education for Sustainability. I’ve actually spent a significant amount of time thinking about and working on this topic in general. I would also like to give a shout-out to my colleagues at Shelburne Farms, especially Aimee & Kerri, whose webinar on this very topic last week reminded me of these key points and of our path forward.
So without further ado:
First: Help kids fall in love with the (natural) world
I would like to add a few more concrete ways we can nurture climate activism in our children, rather than climate anxiety: first, we need to kindle a relationship between our children and the natural world- get them outside! Help them fall in love with this wonderful place. A deep connection to the joys and curiosities of the world is a prerequisite for interest in saving it.
Help your children connect and explore the mountains, fields, and woods. Gaze at the stars and clouds. Listen to the birds, rain, and wind as it travels through the trees. Marvel together at this amazing world.
Second: No tragedies before third grade
Help kids understand the facts of climate change without delving too deeply into the tragedies unfolding around us. Exposing kids, especially younger ones, to the horrors of starving polar bears or burned kangaroos may lead to what educator David Sobel termed ecophobia, which means a fear of the natural world. This fear can lead to a sense of powerlessness and withdrawal from nature (and activism).
(I’ve been noticing this in myself lately: I can’t bear to watch the vivid and gorgeous nature documentaries that abound on Netflix and the like. It breaks my heart. But I can still go to the woods. To the trees and rocks and rivers, and let nature’s balm heal.)
Instead, provide matter-of-fact explanations about the science and civics of climate change. (There’s a great book called Buried Sunlight by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm that explains what fossil fuels are and how their use is warming our planet.) It’s also ok to have- and show- your feelings: this is hard stuff. But we don’t want to traumatize kids by focusing solely on the negative.
Third: Make a difference, here, now
Help kids find ways to make a difference right here, in our own community. Help them develop a sense of agency or power- the ability to make a difference right here, right now.
Many kids are already familiar with United Nations’ Goals for Sustainable Development, which specify 17 goals that folks across the globe are working on together. Check them out, and as a family think of something to do locally that addresses one of the goals.
Together learn about our own contributions to the problem (in Vermont, as in many places, it is our transportation, heating/cooling, electricity, and food systems that are the biggest contributors) and do something about it: start a no-idling campaign in your school or church parking lot, grow your own food, start a carpooling group for afterschool activities.
Finally: Model activism; get involved yourself
My last suggestion is that you get involved yourself: model being a climate activist for your child. I don’t really want to either, and it’s hard to find the time, but nothing is more important than trying to create a liveable future for my children. And time is up.
So here I am, a somewhat reluctant activist, a member of Extinction Rebellion Champlain Valley. And I promise you there is even some joy and fun to be found in coming together in climate activism.
We are in this together. And we need everybody. Now.