It may feel like your responsibility, especially around Earth Day, to tell your children that the earth is in trouble.
Here is something to keep in mind: talking about the environmental crisis with your child may not be the most effective way to help them become an environmental steward. For children six and under, information about environmental issues can create fear and anxiety that is unhelpful, unhealthy and ultimately not effective in supporting their care for the earth.
There are, however, incredibly important steps you can take to instill strong, life-long sustainability values without the potential damage that can come from sharing too much, too soon.
Love & Joy
The single most important thing you can do for your budding environmentalists is to support their relationship with nature. Unstructured time to enjoy nature is vital in early childhood. This not only creates a sense of love for the natural world but also helps children know they belong to a great tapestry of life. Finding ways to interact with the non-human world adds a sense of deep, sensorial understanding of the world around us. Time in the backyard, parks, nature trails, camping, "glamping," exploring nature in any way is golden. So yes, a simple walk down to the creek and with time to enjoy getting mud between your toes and to marvel at the creatures and plants is enough during these early years!
Children who grow up understanding the deep interconnectedness between ourselves and nature are much more likely to understand why making an effort to live sustainably matters. This can be presented to children in a joyful, awe-filled way. For example: As you explore a tree one day you can let them know all the amazing things trees do for us. Their roots help the ground stay put and not wash away in the rain, their canopies create shade and they create homes for so many animals. Let children know that so many things we need come from plants and that we have a special connection to them through our breath. You can spend time thanking the trees by dancing around them or making little love offerings!
Resist the urge to add onto that joyful moment information about deforestation. That information will be essential at an older age - and children who understand and have a personal connection to the trees will be moved deeply to action.
In early childhood, the work is to let them know in the deepest part of their being that we have to live in balance with the natural world to survive. Learning about the wonder and interconnectedness of the web of life is enough.
Modeling sustainable behavior will make those habits second nature for your children. Talking about what you are doing and why you are doing it helps them understand how important living sustainably is to your family. For example: when you hike, bring a container to pick up trash you find along the way. Simply saying something like “When we pick up trash we are taking care of the animals who live here!” is enough. You might even let them know that eating trash can make animals sick, so we never leave trash in the woods or in the water.
If you are making changes to move your family toward sustainability, your children can be a part of the process. If you are making an effort to purchase things in a conscious way, let them know why you are making the choices you are making. I will often share my thoughts, by speaking them out loud. For example: “Well, I do love the milk we normally buy, but I am really wanting our family to buy and use less plastic. Oh, I see there is some milk in glass containers! I hadn’t noticed that before. Let’s try these, because we can just return the bottles to the company. I’m so excited about this!”
So why not give children more information? Don’t they need to know? In Kim John Payne’s words: “Too much information does not ‘prepare’ a child for a complicated world; it paralyzes them.” When we give too much information too early, it can create fear and anxiety for children. That fear and anxiety is not only harmful to their health, it doesn’t serve the goal of cultivating a steward of the earth as powerfully as the steps above do.
In Simplicity Parenting, a great deal of thought goes into what and when we share “adult topics” with children. This is called the practice of “filtering out the adult world”. We consciously guard our children’s experience of childhood through being aware of the information streams coming their way. In this case it means giving them the gift of a few years of pure enjoyment and wonder at the natural world. It means showing care for the earth in our actions rather than fear for the future of the earth in our conversations. To raise healthy children that can become the solutionaries our world needs, children need to know that, as Kim John Payne says, “Children need to know that theirs is a good world…They have a place, in a time and a world of hope and promise.”
What if they ask?
If they ask questions about the climate crisis, do your best to answer them in a simple, positive, age appropriate and truthful way. For example if they ask “Are the polar bears going to disappear?” You might say, “The polar bears are having a hard time right now. They are really important, because everything in nature links with everything else. So there are scientists and activists and everyday people that have been working hard to find ways to help them!” If your child is really concerned about something in particular, you can always let them know that a lot of creativity and new ideas are going to be needed to help. Maybe they will be part of the team that helps solve this problem someday! Slightly older children might love to have family make a gift donation to a particular cause on their behalf. The key is to focus on the people who are helping.
Want a deeper dive? Here is a wonderful podcast by simplicity parenting founder Kim John Payne entitled "Saving the planet while saving our families." It's only 8 minutes long!