How to Talk to Kids About the Climate Crisis

by | Jul 25, 2019

Shelton Stat of the Week

82% of Millennials are anxious about how climate change will affect their children’s quality of life (Eco Pulse 2018).

How to talk to kids about the climate crisis

A couple of months ago my eight-year-old daughter slumped in her chair at the dinner table and said, “In 2050 it’s all over.” I asked, “What’s all over?” She said, “The earth…it’s done. The sun won’t come up anymore and there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.”

I talk with my daughter about the work I do to help companies lead the way on helping the planet, but I KNOW I’ve never shared any of the dire forecasts and dates – especially not the EMF stat about plastics in the ocean. I make it a point to be truthful with her, but also to avoid stoking anxieties, so I tend to frame my work and what needs to be done for the environment in positive, can-do terms.

But she’s hearing all the dire stuff anyway.

I wanted to understand where/how she’s hearing about it so I could better figure out how to help her process it. When I asked if she talks about climate change with her friends she said, “We talked about it once, but then it was too scary so we stopped.” I know her school curriculum has a lot of sustainability concepts infused into it – her first grade class did a “Conference on Oceans,” which is probably where they learned about plastics in the ocean. But the point is, kids are hearing about the climate, and it likely seems terrifying, like a Boogeyman waiting to pounce on their future adult selves.

As someone who makes a living understanding how people think, feel and act on environmental issues, and then markets brands and products to those people on behalf of our clients, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Our polling only covers people over the age of 18, so I don’t have data for you (or for me) about how to answer kids’ questions and shape them into climate-responsible citizens. But looking at what we do know about the complexities of how grown-up Americans think and behave on the environment, I have three ideas:

  1. Actions speak louder than words. This is probably true across the board with kids. It’s certainly true for companies. I can’t tell you how many times I hear from companies, “We have such a good environmental story to tell, we just need to tell it.” Well, sometimes that’s true, and sometimes it’s not. We all want to believe in the companies we work for, but the companies with truly good stories are the ones taking deep, meaningful action for people and the planet. When CVS walked away from $2 billion in cigarette sales – an extremely difficult business decision – that action “told us” they were serious about being seen as a health care company. When Hellman’s committed to only using cage free eggs in its product, it “told us” they were serious about driving change. The action IS the story. So start with you – turn the water off when you brush your teeth, bring your own bags and takeout containers with you when you’re out and about, use a reusable water bottle, make your next car a hybrid or an EV, actively work to reduce your family’s waste, etc. Taking everyday action for the environment shows your kids how to do the same and sends a message that it’s not hopeless – we can all DO something.
  2. Create hope. I don’t mean false hope. But for kids, the question they really have about all of this is, “Am I going to be OK?” (That notion is spelled out well here and here in a couple of articles a fellow sustainability practitioner, Scott Breen, shared with me). We see this in adults as well – people get locked up by hopelessness or too many choices and by not knowing what to do, so they throw up their hands and do nothing. Whether we’re talking to kids or adults, we need to remind them that while the forecast is scary, it is a forecast. And unlike the weather, we can all work to change the forecast. At that point in the narrative it’s really important to give 2-3 specific action steps. Platitudes like, “Be green” truly don’t work – people need to know HOW. Depending on who you represent, those action steps will be different. If you’re working for a utility, you may want to focus people on air sealing their homes and adding insulation. If you’re working for a large company, you may want to focus people on buying particular products with a zero or positive environmental footprint.
  3. Watch your language. If you have kids you’ve learned how to manage your language and not drop expletives into a sentence for effect the way you might with your adult friends. The same is true about sustainability. Joel Makower wrote a great piece about this that everyone in the sustainability space should read — his point, and I agree, is that we need to be thoughtful so our words illustrate the change we want to communicate. A big one that’s been up for me for a long time is the word “consumer.” If we want to move to a circular economy – and I think most of us do – we have to find a different word. “User” sounds terrible. Perhaps “citizen” is better?

I actually think THAT’s a conversation I’ll have with my daughter. And if she has the answer, I’ll let you know.

Americans Say ‘Enough’ to Plastic

American consumers care about the problem of plastic waste more than ever – even more than climate change, in fact, our research reveals. We polled 1,000 Americans on environmental issues, and “plastics in the ocean” ranked as their top concern. Now is the time for brands to create solutions and tell their stories. Find out more in our free report.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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1 Comment

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    I love this article and all the thoughtful works you publish. Thank you – very timely as my 10 year old son recently told me he was getting scared – when I asked why he said I go on and on about the environment too much (duly noted)! I responded by explaining that awareness is important (which is why I point things out maybe a little too often) and so is action which is why I have pivoted my entire career to being the change. Your article reinforced that we are doing the right things. I am now a little more focussed on balancing all that out with fun and making a point of consciously and responsibly enjoying all the good things about our modern lives while taking action to make the future a better one than currently forecast 😉

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