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How to talk to kids about climate crisis

Author says families can encourage activism without anxiety reaching a boiling point.

When Mary DeMocker decided to write her 2018 book, The Parents’ Guide to Climate Revolution, she wanted to help parents fight for their kids’ future in a way that wasn’t overwhelming or anxiety-inducing.

Parents have little time and emotional bandwidth. Add to that trying to raise children amid the existential threat of climate change and “it’s really just a pressure cooker for families,” says DeMocker.

Even before she had her children in the 1990s, DeMocker and her husband practiced a low-carbon-footprint lifestyle. They had a small house in Eugene, Ore., used solar panels, planted a garden, only used one car.

Despite their efforts, by the 2000s global temperatures were rising. She struggled with how to more effectively fight climate change.

DeMocker realized that she needed to “switch off” worrying about her own carbon footprint and become more politically active.

She started writing. With no other credentials than her love for her children and her instincts to protect them, she began pitching articles about how to be more active. She started the Eugene chapter and organized protests and rallies with teachers and kids.

Parents started asking her for lists of five to 10 things they could do to protect their kids. The list grew to 100 things, then into a book. At more than 300 pages, it’s comprehensive but extremely accessible. DeMocker provides short, easy-to-read chapters on a wide range of topics.

Each chapter ends with a helpful list of ways families can engage. “It’s a menu instead of a to-do list … you can pick and choose. It can be a reference over time as kids change and as circumstances change.”

Amid the numerous topics and suggestions, DeMocker’s main takeaways for parents are:

  • Keep four things in mind when talking with your children about the climate crisis: Listen to their fears and concerns; validate them; provide honest information but keep it age-appropriate, “so, they understand only what they need to know”; and let them know that lots of people are doing good work – and how you can support that work. Emphasize the positive with your children. This is a time of innovation and imagination; there are exciting conversations to be had about the different ways we can tackle climate change.
  • Do system change first. “We’ve been doing the stuff at home first. Flip it around.” For example, DeMocker recommends that if you only have two minutes to take some kind of action and have to choose between washing out a sticky peanut butter jar to recycle or make a call to your senator, call the senator. Circle back to the peanut butter jar later.
  • Stop judging yourself and others. Shame and guilt can be paralyzing. “Don’t snort at the in-laws who show up in an SUV. Focus on the larger system that allows SUVs to be made in the first place,” she says.
  • Pick what your family cares about and focus on that. Have fun. If her kids were young now, she says, she would use social media sites like TikTok to make entertaining videos spreading awareness about their chosen causes.
  • Don’t do it alone. Seek collective solutions with your family. Identify organizations to support, join community groups. Not only are adult voices amplified this way, but so are kids’ voices.

Sadly, climate change isn’t going away. Parents will continue to parent around this issue. Now in their twenties, DeMocker’s children are grappling with how to respond to the crisis as adults.

She reminds them that we have solutions. “The biggest thing people of all ages need to know is that scientists say we have the time and solutions to slash carbon emissions … we just need those solutions to be embraced and funded by our government at the highest level,” she says.

This story was first published in the May/June 2021 print issue. 

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About the Author

Meg Butterworth

Meg Butterworth is a Seattle-based freelance writer who enjoys covering stories that impact the lives and well-being of folks living in the Puget Sound.