Many parents dread having to give their kids “the talk.” Not about sex, but about an even more difficult subject: climate change. This is such a big and scary topic that it’s hard to know where to start. But it’s too important a task to shy away from. Like it or not, your children are going to have to grow up in a warming world. They need to understand the problem in order to be part of the solution.
For green parents, teaching kids about sustainability and the environment comes naturally. Just by the way you live, you’re exposing your children to green values from babyhood. But knowing when to address the specific topic of climate change is trickier. When your kids are little, it’s tempting to shield them from this “inconvenient truth.”
There are two problems with this. First, there’s a good chance they’re scared already. Even if your kids don’t hear about climate change from you, they still hear about it. They get exposed to the topic at school or through bits of news stories they overhear. And while they may not know much about it, they understand enough to know it’s a big problem. This can make them anxious, afraid, or depressed about what the future holds.
You can’t help them deal with these feelings without talking about the problem. In fact, avoiding the subject could make their fear worse. Kids can sense when there’s something grownups aren’t telling them. And they worry that the problem must be really terrible if no one is willing to talk about it. They may also become angry or distrustful toward you for not being honest with them.
Second, even if you could completely hide this ugly truth from your children, that wouldn’t make it go away. Climate change is a real and serious threat, and it’s going to have a big impact on their lives. It’s something they need to learn about so they can be prepared for it. Teaching your kids about global warming is no different from warning them about playing in traffic or talking to strangers. The best way to protect them from the danger is to teach them what they need to know.
Talking to kids about climate change is much like talking to them about any other disaster. First, find out what they’ve already heard and how they feel about it. Be honest with them about the facts, but avoid going into too much grisly detail. And finally, stress what’s being done about the problem. In the case of global warming, this can include talking how you can help by making sustainable choices.
Be proactive about bringing up this subject with your kids. If they don’t hear about climate change from you, they’ll learn from others—and what they learn may not be true. If your kids are very young, you can start introducing the idea in an age-appropriate way. If they’ve reached school age, you may need to start by asking them what they’ve already heard. If they’ve been exposed to climate myths, be prepared to counter them with facts
You can start introducing environmental ideas to kids as young as three or four. However, at this age, you need to keep it simple. Children this young can’t understand details about carbon emissions or deforestation. But they can grasp the concept that living things need a healthy environment to grow. You can reinforce this idea by observing the cycle of the seasons together. Having them help care for plants or pets can also be helpful. Simple activities like this lay a foundation to learn more complex environmental ideas later.
School-age kids can begin to understand the greenhouse effect in a simplified way. One useful analogy is to describe greenhouse gases as a blanket that keeps the planet warm. If that blanket becomes too thick, the planet overheats, causing problems like bigger storms and rising sea levels. In discussing global warming, make sure to establish its connection to fossil fuels. This will make it clear why anything that reduces fossil fuel use, from electric cars to solar panels, is helpful.
Tweens and teens are ready to start delving into more nitty-gritty details about climate science. You can help by introducing them to reliable sources of climate information. Look for books, films, or websites that focus on their particular interests, such as protecting wildlife or fighting air pollution. And teach them the basics about how to identify trustworthy sources and sort fact from fiction.
One of the best ways to introduce environmental subjects to young children is by spending time outdoors together. Use the plants and animals around you to teach your kids about ecosystems. Tend a garden together and observe how the plants grow. Even looking at ants on a sidewalk can get them used to thinking about the roles other creatures play in the world. As kids grow to love and understand the natural world, they’ll become more eager to protect it.
It can be easier for kids to grasp climate concepts if you point to real life examples. For instance, when talking about sea level rise, explain how coastal areas they’ve visited could be affected. When discussing the effects on ecosystems, talk about specific plants and animals they’re familiar with.
You can also use real life examples to illustrate the harm our modern lifestyles can cause. If you go out to run errands, talk about how driving can harm the climate. Then discuss possible solutions, such as electric vehicles, bicycles, or walking.
Climate change is a scary topic, even for adults. For kids, it can be even more difficult. They have more reason than older generations to worry about what it will do to their future world. And they may feel like there’s nothing they can do to stop it.
But despair is not a solution. What we need instead is cautious optimism—a belief that we can make a difference if we try hard. To help instill this attitude in your kids, teach them about climate solutions. Young children may be interested in the Mickey-shaped solar farm at Disneyland or farms where sheep graze under solar panels. Older kids and teens may enjoy learning about more technical topics, like vertical farms or carbon capture. The climate section at Reasons to Be Cheerful is a good place to find stories about the latest positive developments.
Another way to discuss climate solutions is to talk about what you can do as a family to help. Kids who know about the dangers of fossil fuels can also understand the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy. They can see why behaviors like switching to LED light bulbs or using community solar make a difference.
Even the youngest children can begin to form eco-conscious habits in their daily lives. They may not know yet how turning off the lights after leaving a room helps keep the environment clean. But if you praise them for doing it, that helps fix the connection in their minds. As they grow older, they can understand more about how habits like using public transit, biking, or composting reduce their carbon footprint.
Most of all, make sure to set a good example by walking the walk yourself. Kids often pay more attention to what you do than what you say. If you’re urging them to be more environmentally conscious while still driving a gas-guzzler yourself, they won’t take your words as seriously.
If your kids want to do more for the climate, there are lots of ways for them to get involved. Some ideas include:
When your children are young, you’ll be the one educating them about climate. But don’t be surprised if at some point, they start schooling you. Sometimes, teens know more about the latest findings on climate problems and solutions than their parents do. And they often have strong feelings about the problem and what needs to be done to address it.
Your teen may challenge you over behaviors such as flying or eating meat, as Greta Thunberg did with her parents. Instead of pushing back in this situation, talk the issue through together. Ask why this is important to them and how your behavior makes them feel. Work together to find a solution or compromise you can both live with.
If your teen wants to become more involved in climate activism, be supportive. According to a 2023 poll, about one in four U.S. teens have taken some kind of action on climate. Parents interviewed by NPR say their kids are doing everything from founding student climate groups to suing the federal government.
Give teens the help they need to take part in activities like these. Even if an activity like a student walkout interferes with their schoolwork, cut them some slack. Sure, working hard in school is important for their future. But so is ensuring they have a livable world to grow up in.