Parenting young children in the era of climate change
August 9, 2017 10:58 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to know how those with young children are dealing with the likely impacts of climate change during their children's lifetime, both existentially and as a parenting matter. (More under the fold; I'm hoping this is not chatfilter.)

This is likely inspired by the recent doomsday NY Mag article. I understand that article has its critics, and that it's a worst case view rather than a most likely view.

That said, people who were born in the last few years will grow up entirely within the consequences of climate change, and those who live to the last few decades of this century will begin to see and experience some of its worst impacts. It seems like if you're a parent, you must grapple with this pretty constantly, wondering how to prepare your children for a long life of watching species extinction, a dying ocean and the animals that live there just washing up on the shore all the time, a population boom and the earth's reduced capacity to accommodate it, displacement of huge populations of climate refugees from arid and island nations, food insecurity, growing geopolitical instability and war, and so forth.

Even if the U.S. is impacted less than other nations, which seems possible but not inevitable, I really do feel like even just a lifetime of waking up to those headlines and that reality seems incredibly difficult and bleak.

I'm curious how MeFites handle this personally, and maybe whether people can point me to articles and other media that discuss this in a productive and enlightening way. How are people handling the emotional turmoil of raising kids in that world? How are they raising their kids to exist in that world?

(If there are optimistic takes about the climate future, I'll also read those, but I'm not interested in them exclusively or primarily, because I'm not myself optimistic about it.)
posted by kensington314 to Human Relations (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
There has always been an existential threat to everyone you've ever met. Climate change is just the next thing on the list that includes nuclear war, regular war, genocide, plagues, floods, etc. etc. etc. As my father once told me during a period of teen angst, "When I was your age, there was no Disneyland. When your grandfather was your age, there was no polio vaccine. When his grandfather was your age, he could still legally be owned by another human being." So I remember that things really do get better, even as I remember that it takes effort to make them get better.

He probably meant Disney World, but the point stands.
posted by Etrigan at 11:07 AM on August 9, 2017 [24 favorites]

Um, it's terrifying. I have regular panic attacks about it. It feels far scarier than it did a few years ago, too. I deal with it by getting myself involved. I make calls to my reps and belong to a group that's working on climate change. My parents are very involved. We do what we can to reduce our footprint and work to help put policies in place that will improve things. My kid is here - I feel a desperation to keep the world intact for her. We haven't had to start talking to her about it yet (she's too young) so no idea how that will work, when we have to do it.
posted by john_snow at 11:10 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Even if you are skeptical of things getting better in some aspects, or your view that those things are less crucial than the dire future, I would say you should focus on what you and your kids can do to improve the world around them and prepare for things to change in ways that may make them uncomfortable.

These topics will come up naturally, I don't think you have to bring them up. Your kid will read something, hear someone say something, or watch something on TV or in a movie that will lead to questions. Discuss the future as frankly as you feel comfortable given the circumstances, and talk about what you can do to get involved now.

But even before the topics come up, you can get involved and bring your kid along, to help them understand the world around them and see how others live in it. Teach empathy and sympathy, avoid me-vs-the-world thinking, which may come from seeing the future as bleak and desperate. Get involved with local causes and groups, because there are also current-day needs that needs attention and support, in addition to big-picture causes and concerns.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:16 AM on August 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Quick clarification on Etrigan's point. My question isn't so much about the ethics or comparative suffering that people experience across generations - there's a 2015 AskMeFi question that covered this pretty well, and I do understand that life is suffering and that if there was ever a time when it made no existential sense to have children, it was probably the post-war era which gave us the Baby Boom.

Tangentially, I know there are frequent comparisons between the nuclear situation of the 20th century and climate situation in the 21st, but I think they are different. My question here is really how to parent in light of the things that are going to happen to our planet, which seems a different question than parenting under the possibility, but not the guarantee, of mutually assured destruction. (That's also serious, to be sure, but what I'm trying to get at is that my question is about the specifics of climate change, not the question of whether there has always been suffering and the threat of annihilation.)
posted by kensington314 at 11:18 AM on August 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I take advantage of opportunities to get my kids up close and personal with nature as often as possible, so that the animals and ecosystems we are losing are not abstract ideas from TV but actual realities to them (not the loss part, yet - just hey, this is a tide pool and these are crabs and sea urchins, or, this is prairie land, or, this is the forest and the kind of animals that live there). Through their progressive school, they know why we recycle and don't throw trash on the highway and why we don't waste water. These are a lot of the same concepts I was introduced to in my elementary years so it's nothing revolutionary, but I know movies like Free Willy and Medicine Man (that's how old I am) helped hammer home the idea of habitat loss on a wide scale and altered my habits for a lifetime.
posted by annathea at 11:26 AM on August 9, 2017 [6 favorites]

I think you raise them to be dirty little hippie environmentalists. Teach them to be passionate about climate change and the earth. Teach them how to refute arguments against climate change (and when not to engage, because there's no point). The more joy and wonder you can convey to them in the earth as a planet, the more fiercely their generation will want to protect it. Ultimately, even if things do get worse during their generation, their response to climate change will be shaping the next generation's. It's interesting how as we've rejected much of the flagrant brutality and carnage of our history, much of the "developed world" is still relatively ok with doing damage to our future kin. But attitudes do change and I think if you teach them that the earth matters, their opinions make a difference, recycling, etcetera, you'll have given them a fighting chance at making better choices than we have. And don't be too scared (if it helps). Everyone alive today came from stock who suffered through the various plagues and pillages of history.
posted by benadryl at 11:32 AM on August 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

I don't have kids, but if I did, I would probably try and take them places that are probably going to disappear in their lifetime, so they get to experience them.
posted by Automocar at 11:45 AM on August 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Not there yet but I plan to model the use of second hand items where possible, quality over quantity to reduce the need for manufacturing resources, ways to counteract the man-made sources of these problems. Things are changing but if we act on our values related to that it creates more empowerment and less futility and hopelessness.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:19 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I try not to think about it or I'd never sleep at night or be able to get out of bed in the morning. But, this is what I try to do anyway:

- teach my kid to get along with others and build a social network and help others
- go out into nature, teach about nature and various animals and plants and parts of the world
- teach basic nature-oriented skills like gardening, farming, hiking, camping, cooking/food-making
- teach and model reduce/reuse/recycle in our household (we recently went from paper towels to cotton napkins for everyday use; the kid's reaction was "this way we don't have to buy new, just wash them! so smart!")
- try to teach and model anti-consumerist behavior, eg. we don't buy new stuff every day, we don't buy toys often, we introduced the kid to the local version of Craigslist and put up some old toys for sale, we try to buy mostly secondhand
- explain that things are fixable and we don't simply throw away stuff if it doesn't work anymore
- encourage taking care of things we own so they last longer
- bike and walk and use public transport regularly instead of always driving everywhere
- we are mindful about our food and water consumption

So far, we explain these behaviors mostly in terms of "nice", "useful", "way to save money", and opt to skip the "Earth is dying" angle.
posted by gakiko at 12:34 PM on August 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I teach my little one that the climate has been changing ever since there has been a climate and that it has been warming for the past 20000 years and that we've intertwined politics with science so thoroughly that it's virtually impossible to tease the truth out of the data to get the current climate direction.

I also send her to a private school to spare her the hyperbolic concern about the matter that is present in some public schools while getting a better education at the same time.

I also sleep better at night knowing that Moore's Law will overcome any climate change concerns whether real or imaginary within our lifetime.

The best thing you could do for yourself and your kids is read "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzwiel and read up on his predictions on the technological applications of future problems of humanity.
posted by Lord Fancy Pants at 1:22 PM on August 9, 2017

My plans, though my daughter is only 2 so it's early days for impressing all of this on her:

- model good climate-friendly behavior. Minimize energy use, conserve water, recycle, try to use reusable stuff rather than disposable stuff, lots of secondhand toys and clothes, etc. Let her know that we trust the overwhelming scientific consensus, that we support and advocate for politicians that also trust the overwhelming scientific consensus, and that we agree with actions that can be taken on national scales to combat and/or prepare for changes
- teach her to enjoy and care about nature - partially for the sense of responsibility, partially so she can enjoy what we have access to while it is available
- teach her to have empathy and feel responsibility for refugees and other displaced people, because there will be climate refugees as agriculture changes and sea levels change and she needs to understand that we're all in this together and we need to take care of each other, rather than saying "Hey, I've got mine"
- discourage her from investing in any currently oceanfront property or currently fertile farmland

For what it's worth, I work in the robotics industry and I'm also fully aware I need to discourage her from pursuing fields I expect to be largely automated by the time she is an adult. Like, I took her to an airshow and was happily wondering whether the Blue Angels would inspire her to someday be a pilot, until I suddenly remembered I worked on drones and it was literally my job to make pilots obsolete so maybe I ought not to be encouraging that. To me, the things about climate change and automation are not that they will ruin everything - it's that they will cause huge shifts in The Way Things Are, and while there is the potential for them to ruin everything, I do believe those can be overcome if and only if society is willing to make it work as opposed to letting people selfishly cling onto any privilege - so my role is to prepare her for these changes and to teach her the importance of being part of the overall solution, as opposed to just surviving.
posted by olinerd at 3:01 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

As most of the parents have said, we try to live in an environmentally conscious way, and teach that to our school age kids. Often seeing things up close can help- visiting nature, a science centre or museum.
Additionally, I tell my kids that their generation will have to be the ones to solve our problems. That there are children today who will grow up to be scientists/ inventors/ politicians ect, who will help. It makes them want to grow up to save the environment.
(And climate change is pretty rough in canada, the arctic is in trouble and weather has dramatically changed)
posted by Valancy Rachel at 4:28 PM on August 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't have kids, and this may not speak to your question, really, but this is a good article by the Zen teacher Norman Fischer.
posted by gigondas at 4:56 PM on August 9, 2017

I am somebody's child, and I've read your article. I'm living in a world where climate change is already happening.

Here are a handful of the things I'm doing:
- I walk and bike and ride public transportation. I see it as my responsibility to not own a motor vehicle or go on long-distance vacations. I'm going to learn to sail for longer-distance transportation.
- I don't eat meat, and I'm working on cutting down/out the dairy.
- To set a precedent, working to get a home-built compost toilet legally approved as the only toilet in a single family residence in a major U.S. city.
posted by aniola at 12:16 AM on August 10, 2017

I realise this isn't an option for everyone, but what I did was quit a pretty great job to work in climate advocacy.

One of the best things about this is that I get to be around people who share my concerns. We don't often talk openly about our feelings and fears...but we can if we need to. And it's just helpful for me to know I am around people who understand - and of course, that I'm doing what I can to make it better.

You could probably get the same benefits from volunteering. You just need to talk with other people about it. It's really fucking hard if you don't.

(Oh, and it's not just young children who will feel the effects of climate change. Sorry.)
posted by 8k at 2:18 AM on August 10, 2017

Oh - and building community, social connections, navigating conflict etc. I put a lot of effort into teaching this to my young kids. The eco-conscious lifestyle stuff I try to model, obviously, but they can learn that later. When they're young, the main thing they're learning is about emotions and society - that shit will be even more important in the future.
posted by 8k at 2:29 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

It is not impossible to extract truth about this matter like one poster said above. The planet's rate of warming is due to human activity and all data shows this.

I would lean heavily on reassurance. When I was young, I was terrified of the earth is dying messages and could barely handle it. Show them that actions can assuage fear and have them get involved with local park cleanups, recycling, and writing letters to elected officials.
posted by agregoli at 10:58 AM on August 15, 2017

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