When is the right time?

2011-07-25 00.50.29

This is a very brief post because I want to know what you think. I’m very interested in the question: At what age do we start talking with children about the unfolding environmental catastrophe? Do we cover it up and make life as good as we can for now, or do we start to prepare them, in a combination of therapy, practical survival skills and enlisting them in active resistance? How do we overcome our own denial, however constructive it is, and listen to the alarm bells ringing with our children?

Please comment below….I have no clear answers. I do have some thoughts which can partly be seen in this post Children and the Olympic Century.

Also, click on the Comments link to reveal them and read them, as they are all really interesting.

The photo is of an adult & young child watching one of Feral Theatre’s Funerals for Lost Species, which mourn irretrievable extinctions of iconic species.

A final quick note: It looks as if this organisation, the Climate Psychology Alliance, may add some useful resources on how not to overwhelm children but to give them agency. They are calling for resources and articles so if you have anything to share with them, get in touch.

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11 responses to “When is the right time?

  1. Hmmm. I’ve wondered about this myself. Actually, I’ve wondered about how best to prepare rather than when. I don’t think we need to scare them. I think we need to teach them to love the environment, to build relationships with nature and to have a healthy sense of place. I think they can work out the rest for themselves. My boys (8 & 10) can’t believe the way people treat the swans in our local park, they’re outraged by how little time their friends spend in nature, and don’t understand why it’s considered weird to be interested in birds. Every time there’s a new headline, we talk about it, and how much things need to change to protect our fragile relationship with the world around us. I think that’s all we can do as parents; they need to make their own choices.

  2. I don’t believe in hiding anything from children. Firstly, because of the interconnectedness of things (the environment pervades everything) and secondly, because being part of the problem and being part of the solution are inseparable.

    I’m always led by what my children want to know. They are already aware of their own mortality, to the extent that small children (or indeed anyone) can be aware of such things. Whether or not anyone can truly comprehend the greater realities does not detract from the fundamental importance of knowledge as a basis for living.

    And as far as being part of the solution goes, however overwhelming the difficulties we face might be, we have a real need to engage our most enquiring minds with the practical challenges ahead of us. At the very least we’ll be able to fight against the ignorance that has got us to where we are now.

  3. It’s never too early to start telling them stories about how we are part of nature and that every part of nature depends on every other part of nature being healthy and happy and playing its full part in the cycle. That some people have forgotten this, which is very sad and very harmful, and we’re on a quest together to help the circle of life keep going. That each of us, individually and together, can do things every day to help. And that all of us, children and grown-ups, must never stop trying to learn more about the natural world, because this is the only way to avoid becoming one of the Forgetters.

  4. There are two different parts to this question aren’t there? First when/how do we teach them about the importance of our complex relationship with the environment? I agree with the others that this is part of teaching from an early age and reflects in our choices (e.g. 6 yo knows we don’t have a car because of concern for effects on environment).

    But the second part is harder, when do we let them know the mess we’ve made of it, that there will be consequences (what Bridget refers to as the unfolding catastrophe) This is a bit like the question of talking about war, racism, sexism in that it touches on our own fear anger etc and is tricky to not frighten children or lead them to despair. but is necessary to help them cope and resist in increasingly adult ways.

    I think the key is building a change mentality, the world is changing, some of this is ok and just needs to be taken into account, some of this creates real problems for ourselves (and more so for the people at the bottom of the pile) Another reason to work together, care for others. So I guess, again its a growing part of teaching building in more over time. Not a ‘facts of life’ sit down and talk when they’re ready

  5. Probably when they were around eight or nine, my boys came across environmental pollution in a game of Civilization 4. If you build to much industrial stuff in a city you control it gets unhappy, and an I’ll looking green face icon.
    Talking to my kids about the real environment usually revolves around impressing the need to grow our own veg, herbs and do composting. Several times we have talked about pollution when walking along a riverbank; how rivers are used to carry industrial waste away, polluting them.

    So for the most part, we discuss things as they come up. I only get into ‘push’ teaching when it’s a skill we can use, or a job that that needs doing. I’ve taught the to hold their breath when walking near the back of a car that is ticking over to avoid the fumes. On the speculative side we’ve nattered about ley lines and genius loci.

    There is a financial crises on as well, which I have been trying to get an understanding of lately, which I think about more than the ‘environment’…which raises an interesting question…is currency something which is effectively part of our environment? It’s almost as common as air.

  6. I really appreciate all your responses, all thoughtful and giving me hope that we have effective ways of parenting through this, if not effective ways of tackling the bigger problems. I like the idea of responding honestly to issues as they come up, as children ask or as things present themselves: no surprise that those approaches from two fellow home educators. I like the emphasis on interconnectedness – that the value of nature is that we are part of it, dependent on it. I like the idea of agency – giving and modelling examples of action that is within their grasp. More voices welcome….

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  8. I think you have to be careful using a term like ‘catastrophe’ as this is uncertain. Modern environmentalists, as opposed to traditional environmentalists, would back geo-engineering and biotechnologies and the results of such approaches in the future are uncertain. Whether in agreement with these approaches to climate change, as well as other environmental boundaries, or not, we can only view the future through our present lens of cultural and scientific knowledge.

    Much of how you have posed the question says more about those who are aware of the changes taking place and the current time frame. What do the children need therapy for? They do not know anything is unusual, this is projection (and temporal), as for them the environmental change taking place is their ‘normal’. To catastrophise the current time is to explain our own feelings as adults (apart from those who are in fact ‘in denial’ and those adults we must place in the category of the children, in terms of how they must also be approached). To catastrophise is now known to create a state of fear, anxiety and stress which leads to personal and social paralysis. In fact, many adults who appear to be in denial are more likely to be in this state.

    Using language such as ‘enlist’ and ‘resist’ suggests war, but this plays into the hands of environmental skeptics and deniers and dangerous, powerful people such as George Osborne, who last year coined the phrase ‘environmental Taliban’. We are all one species and need to come together to enable us to tackle the issues that lie ahead in mitigating and adapting to environmental change. What would the children be ‘actively resisting’? Politics? Industry? Globalisation? Or simply Change? Change is inevitable, which ever direction this will take. Rather than resistance, we need to develop compassion and inspire wonder and awe in the natural world, without losing the magic and mystery this holds for a child by introducing too much of the realism that destroys creativity. I do think ‘preparation’ and ‘survival skills’ are important, not just in the face of environmental change, but generally. Education needs to address this issue profoundly.

    Children are not as unaware as they may seem and are far more in touch – with gut instinct and intuition – than any of us adults who have had it trampled on. We must campaign for more suitable education and foster resilience building, but within a creative, positive framework, rather than one that debilitates through fear.

    • Thank you for this really thoughtful response. You echo what others say here by calling for a ‘creative, positive framework’ but spell out in more detail why you think that. There’s a lot of sensitivity and sense in what you say. But, I do believe that there is a great deal more certainty than you suggest that there is an unfolding catastrophe. It is already a catastrophe that forest fires, tree diseases and ecocide are devastating our landscapes. The climate change impacts causing hunger, homelessness and conflict are already leading children to require therapy, if not in the UK (apart from those flooded out of their homes etc). Even if geoengineering etc can be mobilised before collapse reduces human capacity to effect it, the feedback effects already set in train are likely to cause further and greater catastrophe over the next few decades. I don’t know if acknowledging the real experiences and evidence about this is ‘to catastrophise’ or not.
      I agree that children are not as unaware as they may seem, which is why, when they learn about the past, they are able to understand that things are unusual.
      I don’t want to encourage children to resist change at all, but I do want them to understand what is in their power to resist, that is the extremities of social and ecological injustice, and that this power they have is a great deal more than we thought was in our grasp when we were growing up.

  9. This is a really interesting post and I love the responses. A tiny clarification. The child in the photo is not with his mum, he was watching his mum (me) performing onstage! For my family the current state of the world, the complexities and fears, is a regular conversation that is going on around them a lot of the time. I don’t think I will ever have to sit down and have a conversation with them about it and I would not consider hiding anything from them. What I notice is that they are sensitive to and interested in many aspects of life around them. Able to see beauty in a mossy bank and a Disney film and a new lego creation, seeing all with an equality of affection. This is a good lesson for me. And what is important to me is that they grow up resilient, as able to light fires and forage for food as they are able to play a computer game. The future is uncertain.

  10. Thanks, Bridget, for extending our invitation to your networks to share experiences and resources about talking with children. Climate Psychology Alliance’s website is just launched and we are also inviting Guest Editors to interrogate our material, add more and generate discussions. I very much hope that you, Bridget, and others in your network will seriously consider this.

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