Sustainability for kids

May 31, 2022

Most people understand that kids are the future. However, many adults view sustainability as an adult issue, and many kids view sustainability as a boring, hard issue to be dealt with by adults. Nothing could be further to the truth!

Sustainability is about the long-term future of humans on this planet, so it affects all kids’ futures, and for many more years than for their parents and grandparents. So the kids of the world are the people who are most invested in the consequences of our present day actions. As more parents understand the importance of actively engaging with their kids as they learn about sustainability, they are helping empower their kids to be a key part of the solution.

What is climate anxiety?

In our multimedia world, we are all faced with unprecedented levels of exposure to news and current affairs. One of the most common and emotive topics is that of climate change. As a result, our children are also exposed to huge amounts of climate-themed ‘doom and gloom’.

An outcome of this is the growing prevalence of climate anxiety. The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”, and “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”.

Why is it a big deal?

In a recent Lancet study of climate anxiety in children and young people, 59% of respondents said they were very or extremely worried about climate change, and 85% were at least moderately worried. And 45% said their climate anxiety affected their daily life and functioning.

Jennifer Uchendu, a climate activist based in Lagos reacted to the survey results as many young people have: “Young people are having to suffer the brunt of these issues when crisis or disasters come in.” Jennifer makes an excellent point. Young people are more exposed to the long-term impacts of climate change than their parents or grandparents because they’ll live through more of the impacts. It hardly seems fair.

These negative feelings aren’t good for kids’ mental health. So dealing with kids’ climate anxiety is important for parents to be aware of as they help their kids learn about sustainability.

How to deal with climate anxiety: talk, listen, learn

Dealing with their kids’ climate anxiety is a challenge for many parents. They are acutely aware that their kids face a future with unique sustainability challenges. The reality is we all live with the consequences of the actions taken by previous generations.

There are three main steps to consider when dealing with climate anxiety:

  1. Talk – By encouraging kids to talk about climate change and what it means with people they trust (e.g. parents, teachers, support groups), parents can help them work through and release their anxieties and fears about it. And by doing so, they are able to think more positively and proactively about it.
  2. Listen – By listening to their friends talk about climate change, kids are able to help their friends work through their own feelings about it. And by listening to and acknowledging other kids’ climate change concerns, kids learn that they’re not alone in being worried about this stuff. It’s a normal and healthy part of being a young person in 2022, which should be encouraged by parents.
  3. Learn – Kids are expert learners and, as most parents are aware, the more their kids learn the more empowered they are. Knowledge is power, and this is particularly true when it comes to climate change. Kids who learn about the action they can take to make a difference tend to be the most positive about the future as they know their actions are making the world a better place.

Take action: it feels good

Once kids have talked, listened, and learnt about climate change, it’s time to take action. This is the fun part for most kids. It not only combats the feelings of helplessness many kids have about climate change; it’s also the only way things change.

A recent GFK survey identified the people most likely to encourage shoppers to make environmentally-friendly consumer decisions. And guess who came out in the top spot? It wasn’t influencers, politicians, colleagues, or even friends. 45% of the people surveyed said it was their kids who were most likely to encourage them to make more sustainable choices.

Take note, all the parents out there who aren’t actively engaging with their kids regarding sustainability: kids’ opinions and voices matter more than you may realise. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

There’s a lot of good news to focus on when it comes to taking climate action. One of the best pieces of news is that the solutions we need for a zero-carbon future already exist today. For example, low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies are already profitable industries which are growing fast. And these industries alone could halve emissions from electricity generation by 2030. That’s an achievable goal which should provide kids with comfort that addressing climate change is a realistic goal.

And there’s so much each of us can do to reduce our carbon footprints while the systematic changes such as the rollout of renewables are taking place in the coming decade and beyond. For example, kids (and parents) can directly reduce their carbon footprints by:

  1. Turning off all lights which aren’t being used;
  2. Closing doors to ensure air conditioning and heating doesn’t escape;
  3. Taking shorter showers;
  4. Walking or using their bikes whenever they can;
  5. Turning off their computers when they’re not using them.

And there’s one easy action most kids can take which is likely to make a significant contribution towards addressing climate change. Once they are educated about climate change, kids can talk to their parents and friends about the changes they and others can make. As the GFK survey revealed, parents listen to their kids, even if their kids find that hard to believe! So parents and kids can make a real difference by talking with one another about family sustainability decisions such as:

  1. Installing renewable energy;
  2. Replacing old lights with low-carbon LED lighting;
  3. Running appliances on energy saver mode;
  4. Recycling;
  5. Using less heating and air conditioning.

The more kids engage with their families about sustainability, the more action we’ll see from all family members. It’s worth remembering that while one little action may not make a big difference, a million little actions can potentially change the world.

Bringing sustainability to life for kids: make it fun

So action is the key to feeling better about climate change and making a difference.

However, as we all know, there are different motivations for taking action. If kids’ parents insist they complete tasks to help address climate change, kids may be less engaged in the tasks and the long-term goal. However, if kids’ climate change actions are fun and creative, and the kids feel empowered to be engaged and take responsibility, that’s a far more sustainable situation for both the kids and adults. So making climate change fun is essential if lots of kids are going to get involved.

Here are some fun ideas:

  1. Plant veggies in recycled plastic bottles and watch them grow;
  2. Upcycle some old clothes or swap some clothes with your mates to avoid buying new ones;
  3. Conduct carbon dioxide experiments to better understand the attributes of carbon dioxide;
  4. Watch a nature or climate documentary as a family and talk about it;
  5. Arrange a beach/park clean-up with a prize for the person who collects the most litter;
  6. Jump into Genus with your friends, and tell other parents about it — enrolling in the Genus program is a powerful way for kids to take action while also combatting climate anxiety.

The list goes on. The main thing is to find climate change actions which kids genuinely enjoy. The more fun they have, the more engaged they’ll be.

A mindset shift is occurring

By connecting kids’ climate change learning and actions with the realities of climate change, parents can help their kids develop a positive and proactive sustainability mindset at a young age. What a gift this is! It will allow kids to grow up instinctively thinking about and investing in this precious planet. And when this happens all around the world, we’ll have an opportunity for generational and systematic change in the way climate change and broader sustainability issues are addressed.

What a beautiful vision this is to work towards — humans living in harmony with our natural environment thanks to the lessons climate change has provided us.

Jon Owen
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