Harriet Shugarman’s How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change is an invaluable tool for helping kids move from frightened and confused to becoming active, empowered people on climate action. Today’s Climate Week excerpt, Sugarman discusses leading by example and helping kids (and ourselves!) envision what we’re working toward.
Excerpted from Chapter 4: Leading by Example
Leading By Example
Now that you are clearer on what’s at stake and why we are facing this climate emergency, I hope that you are beginning to formulate ideas— personal to you— that will help explain to your kids, in your own words, what’s happening. If you are already involved in the climate movement you can remind them, or perhaps tell them for the first time, what you are already doing. If you are just beginning to come to terms with the crisis, you can let your kids know you are learning everything you can. And, if you find yourself somewhere in between these two ends of our climate action continuum, let your children know you are researching ways to take action (one way is by sharing what you are reading in this book) and that if you aren’t already, you will be soon putting these ideas into practice. Assure them that there are many great examples of families, communities, and individuals young and old working on this full time. Many of your children— like many of us— are angry, confused, and frightened. Reassuring your children, when deep down you often feel a hollow in the pit in your stomach, causing you to wonder if indeed you can keep your promises to them, may seem impossible. So, take a deep breath and do as you tell your children to do: take it one step at a time.
At all times, be honest and provide the facts to the best of your knowledge. Do try your best, when talking and acting on climate, to be in that moment with your child. Just as you sometimes may be a distracted driver, being a distracted climate parent is a common thing in the 21st century. Let me just finish this email, post, tweet, or text— it’s important, it’s about taking climate action. I am sure I am not the only one to say these words to her child. Be conscious of these distractions, and make every effort to be in the moment as best as you can.
We know our planet is currently getting sicker, and our future is indeed precarious; but remind your children — and yourself — that many people do understand this and are working every day to develop solutions and to slow down the changes we have put in motion.
Regardless of their ages, do remind your children that, as a result of the crisis we face, there is an infinite number of opportunities that can and will help our planet begin to heal. As we discussed in Chapter 3, envisioning the future is a critical step to creating it. Once you can see it, talk to you kids about envisioning this future together. Regularly discuss the many ways and opportunities open to your child that will jump-start the creation of the future they want; this will help take away some of the fear and build up active hope.
In addition to, or in the absence of formal lessons and examples, our children are learning about our crisis from their friends and by watching and modeling what your family, your community, and your neighbors are doing; they are also learning about the crisis directly on social media. Because of this, it’s important that they learn the facts about climate change, its impacts, causes, and possible solutions directly from you or from an educator you trust to share this reality. Too many of our children are being personally impacted by our climate crisis already. For many, there is no doubt about the reality of the climate crisis— they are living it. But by learning directly from you, at an early age— or in a formal educational setting, at any age— and by seeing other children and adults around them working to create a livable future where they will not only survive but thrive, your child can build hope and resolve. They will also begin to envision a way they, too, can work directly on the solutions puzzle.
Find Your Superpower
For Mother’s Day, my kids hung a Wonder Woman poster up on my office wall. It reminds me daily that I have two personas. The first is Harriet— mom, wife, sister, daughter, neighbor, and friend. This is the person many people know and see around town— at the post office, the supermarket, attending a neighborhood party, or out for dinner with friends. But this isn’t the full or complete me.
There is the other Harriet, the one who speaks out at marches and leads climate chants from the steps of state houses and city halls, the one who serves as the police liaison at rallies or marches, and the person who assists on court support (being at court, or facilitating support for people who have been arrested for taking non-violent direct action). This is also the Harriet who calls and visits her elected officials regularly, who pitches in at art builds that are used at rallies in city parks and at community centers in lower Manhattan, across New Jersey, and around the country. This Harriet regularly gives talks and moderates discussions on the realities of our climate crisis for anyone who asks. This Harriet also knows intuitively when two people should meet; she can sense when there will be a positive and important connection to be made that will advance climate action, discussions or policies— she has this superpower and uses it to amplify and create bigger actions that lead to climate solutions.
I need to remind myself repeatedly that I am one and the same person. Too often, these two personas seem separate and far apart. Many of the Climate Mamas and Papas I have had the honor to meet and spend time with often feel this same way too. At home with our families, we attend Thanksgiving dinner with climate denier Uncle Bob and argue with him — or ignore him as many in the family suggest: ...this is family time, don’t cause a scene. At times, we hide the full force of our Wonder Woman persona as our own parents, siblings, and good friends regularly remind us not to ruffle feathers.
My advice, though, particularly with your own family, is to not shy away from or be afraid of difficult discussions at family dinners, special events, and holiday get-togethers. Your children are always watching what you do and what you say. Do listen to Uncle Bob, who may have a very different perspective on almost every issue than you do. Try starting conversations with him from a found place of common ground and shared values. Show your children you are trying. Show them you do not just dismiss or ignore people who disagree with your views or beliefs. To be successful in slowing down our climate crisis, we need people with a multitude of ideas, views, and political persuasions. Finding common ground on climate solutions is critical for our present and our future. While you may have family and dear friends that you disagree with politically, working together to remove climate action from the realm of partisan politics by putting the climate crisis front and center is something we all must strive to do.
Model for your children a conversation with Uncle Bob that begins from a place of love. Perhaps it begins with a shared and treasured family story. Make it personal, make your concerns and your hopes heard. At the same time, we mustn’t normalize situations and actions that are clearly not normal, nor allow lies to be spoken and remain unchallenged. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs but not their own set of facts. We must speak the truth. Work to uncover it, and then champion it.
Author Harriet Shugarman
Harriet Shugarman is Executive Director of ClimateMama, professor of Global Climate Change Policy and World Sustainability, and Chair of the Climate Reality Project, NYC Metro Chapter. She is a nationally recognized influencer, connector, and trusted messenger for parents on solutions to our climate crisis. A recipient of the prestigious Climate Reality Green Ring Award and praised by Al Gore as “an outstanding Climate Reality Leader who has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to her role as a climate communicator and activist.”