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When It Comes to Kids, Is Climate a Four-Letter Word?

When and how should we talk to kids about the dangers of climate change? One mother's take.

dandelion kid by fabian bromann

Photo by Fabian Bromann

My daughters, Saoirse and Ula, are no strangers to four-letter words. They’re growing up with farmers, for crying out loud! And no self-respecting farmer around Schoharie County is going to doll up the natural functions of nature with cutesy euphemisms or scientific jargon. When Saoirse was learning to talk, we tried cleaning up our language a bit—but her grandmother swears like a trucker, and her great-grandfather was adamant that such language is best learned at home. So we gave up. We just tell the girls “those are grown-up words. When you’re old enough to know how to use them properly, you can use ‘em, too.” 

Thus, it’s rather amusing when people come to the farm and say things like “I’ve got s-h-i-t on my shoes” (I do believe most 8-year-olds, and even a lot of 4-year-olds, can decipher s-h-i-t).  If they have linguistic slips around my children, most people are quickly apologetic, and often turn crimson with embarrassment. 

Yet very few people think twice about walking into the kitchen, pulling up a chair, and saying things like “this world is going to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. If the earth’s temperature rises just a few more degrees, that’ll be the end of the human race!”

I want my children to connect to their natural world, to have a childhood that fills them up with earthly joys. I can think of no better way to fuel a fire in adulthood to heal our planet.

Okay, call me weird. I really don’t care if you say “hell” in front of my children. But it seriously irks me that grown-ups don’t consider the trauma they’re inflicting on worried young minds by telling them that their lives—and all the beautiful nature that feeds their souls—are in inevitable peril.

This is not to say that I am in denial about climate change. Bob and I think about this constantly.  But I do not believe it is helpful to burden children with frightening facts about the state of the planet when they are powerless, at their young age, to act upon it. I can’t think of a more effective way to make them disengage from the world around them—to cut themselves off from nature, to choose apathy as an act of self-defense—for fear of becoming too attached to something that will be ripped away.

I want my children to connect to their natural world, to have a childhood that fills them up with earthly joys. I can think of no better way to fuel a fire in adulthood to heal our planet. But I don’t think little kids should have to hear about these serious and frightening issues, especially depicted with the dramatic flair that grown-ups find necessary for climate change discussions.

We emphasize that there is a better world that can come of all this, that we can adapt. If we want to see change, then we can’t frighten and discourage the young minds who will be responsible for seeing it through.

I still believe children should be raised with an awareness of their impact on the earth. But rather than frightening them, I prefer to empower my daughters. We teach them to pick up litter, use up leftovers, to compost. We walk in our fields with our livestock and talk about the importance of the spongy soil beneath our feet and the power of the blades of grass between our toes. We limit the number of trips in our car, we sew buttons back on their dresses, we repeat the words of Thoreau (“my greatest skill is to want but little),” and we perpetually strive to cultivate that as our ultimate achievement.

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I cannot cover their ears whenever a well-meaning (and justifiably angry) adult rages about the consequences of our unsatisfactory response to climate crisis. I wince and endure it. When the girls ask questions later on, Bob and I don’t deny the problem. But we do try to direct their attention instead to what we are doing about it: “That’s why we grow food for our community.  That’s why we don’t buy all those plastic toys. That’s why we try not to drive so much. That’s why Mommy and Daddy are writing, speaking, and protesting.” We emphasize that there is a better world that can come of all this, that we can adapt. If we want to see change, then we can’t frighten and discourage the young minds who will be responsible for seeing it through. 

Love is a far more powerful motivator than fear. While we cannot bleep out my friends’ and neighbors’ fear-inducing remarks about the climate, Bob and I can encourage Saoirse and Ula to love their planet, let them know that they have the power to change it, and most importantly, be part of the change ourselves….even if that means putting up with a little extra s-h-i-t.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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