The title of this article ought to say something about having a talk and doing something about global warming, but that’s quite a mouthful. That’s okay, because I’ll definitely have something to say about actions as well as words.
Words, however, are almost always the starting point of anything meaningful.
Because children are still learning to feel at home with verbal expression, talking about global warming provides them with an interesting subject to tackle. On a subject of this magnitude, mom and dad will take the lead by giving the littlest members of the post-carbon generation their undivided attention, a sure sign that something important is underway. (Though children may be novices in the realm of spoken language, they excel at picking up on unspoken messages.)
It’s a discussion, not a monologue
A great place to begin the conversation – which will probably take place in fits and starts – is with stories about the parents’ own upbringing during the end of the fossil-fuel era. Children probably won’t be able to absorb very much along these lines until they’re about eight or nine years old, what some developmental experts call the “nine year change.”
Five-year-olds could find it difficult to understand that mommy and daddy were once five years old; after all, mommies and daddies have always looked just the way they look now! Not that preschoolers and kindergarteners can’t take part in the discussion; they just won’t learn from it what an older child will.
Once upon a time …
You might want to tell your children about all the electrical inventions available to them that didn’t exist not too long ago. Because everyone in the world wants to own a computer, and a cell phone, and an ipad, and video games – not to mention cars – we’re running out of energy.
One day the fuels we use now won’t be available to us anymore. Then ask them, What can we do about that?
Once children understand that conserving energy is a good place to start, ask them to draw a picture of each person in the household doing something to conserve energy: turning off lights, turning down the thermostat, and putting on sweaters in the winter, or drinking water (instead of a soft drink from the refrigerator), turning up the thermostat, or reading a book during the hottest part of the day in the summer.
Unplugging all the energy eaters that remain on standby all the time would make for a great game: how many can they find? (Don’t forget the treadmill in the basement!)
A conservation conversation
Reinforce the idea that your family is conserving energy by showing your older children the graph included with the electric bill, comparing this year’s usage with last year’s. Continue the conversation, asking them what else your family can do to use less energy.
Give your kids the responsibility of carrying the recycling to the street on collection day. Then introduce them to the ideas of reducing, reusing, and recycling. Explain to them which activities constitute reducing, and which constitute recycling and reusing.
Now that everyone in the family is reducing their consumption of energy, and recycling paper, plastic, steel and aluminum, what can be reused? If you can’t afford to install a graywater recycling system (reusing), maybe every member of your family could skip bathing one day a week (reducing). This can be a really good idea during the winter, when dry skin might be a problem. Putting a timer in the shower could be fun for everyone. Who can reduce their shower-taking time by a minute? Could someone else reuse things your family no longer needs? Begin gathering gently used items for donation to Vietnam Vets or the Salvation Army.
Remember to continue the conversation. Make sure your children know why your family does what it does.
Walk the talk
Be honest, parents – when was the last time you mended a sock? Made a gift by hand? Have you learned a new basic skill lately? Are you still using a power mower to cut the grass? Will your next car get 21 miles per gallon, or 50? Are your lives lived close enough to home that an electric car is a viable option?
Discuss all of these decisions with your children as they arise. Make sure they understand that the point of doing all these things is not so that you can compare yourselves to the neighbors and decide that you are much more virtuous than they are. The point of doing these things is to care for the only world we’ve got. If children understand that your family is doing all it can to take from the world only what it needs, not what it wants, they can feel satisfied, safe, and secure.
What would Dobie Gillis do?
By the time your children enter their teen years, they’ll need to know about the threats to humankind’s welfare that global warming presents. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do this. For the child who thinks deeply about things, for the child who tends to worry a lot, or for the child who has a number of sources of instability in his or her life already, go easy. They, and in fact all youngsters, should be told about the state of the world gradually. Always stress that there are many adults who are extremely concerned, and who are doing all they can to solve the problems caused by fossil fuels.
Do not, as my then-fifteen-year-old’s science teacher once did, present so many demoralizing facts and figures in one hour that my son left convinced there was no hope. Hopelessness cannot lead to anything good. It never has, it never will.
Children raised to be a part of the solution grow up to be resilient, resourceful citizens. They will know that being a little warmer than they’d like in the summer, and a little colder than they’d like in the winter, isn’t the end of the world. They will know that living their lives close to home saves energy. They will know that actions speak louder than words. They will know how to take power into their own hands, instead of waiting for it to be handed to them.
Talk to your children about global warming.