Climate experts guide us through just-right ways to discuss global warming with kids at different ages without causing fear or confusion, plus easy ways your family can make a positive impact on our planet.

By Katie Arnold-Ratliff and Lisa Milbrand
Updated March 09, 2020
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It’s an age-old parenting conundrum, felt keenly in times of crisis. How do you reassure your child when you’re scared yourself? The modern version of that dilemma: Someday, our warming world will cease to look or feel like the one we know. Once we’ve grappled with this, we have to explain it to our kids, inviting them into a new reality while quelling the anxiety it brings. Here are some tips from experts on how you can talk about global warming with your kids without freaking them out, plus easy ways you can go green as family.

Talking to Preschoolers

Show your child that the earth is precious. “Walk in nature and talk about what lives there,” says Jill Kubit, cofounder of the climate-focused project DearTomorrow. Then make it clear that the planet needs our help and our actions matter: “We compost food scraps so they turn into soil and help plants grow.” Convey that humans have to work together. “We can talk about responsibility with kids,” says Parents advisor Aaron Bernstein, M.D., M.P.H., a pediatrician and interim director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment. “Confronting climate change is about understanding our responsibility to each other.”

Talking to Kindergartners and First-Graders

Harriet Shugarman, author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change, suggests saying, “The planet is changing. It’s warmer in the winter, and in many places, some animals are dying.” Explain that certain things we do pollute the air, and that pollution acts like a blanket around the earth, warming it and hurting plants and animals. Make it clear that your family can help find solutions. “Talk about solar panels, conserving energy, and new ways you might eat as a family,” says Shugarman.

Talking to Older School-Age Children

If they’re hearing about climate change, you may find yourself soothing their worries, says Dr. Bernstein. If your kid asks, “Are all the fish going to die because of plastic in the ocean?” you can say, “These problems matter a lot to me, and we should think about how we can make a difference.” Then you might participate in a beach cleanup. “Tell them, ‘It’s okay to be anxious, but in the 70 or 80 years ahead of you, you can do things to help,’ ” says Parents advisor Philip Landrigan, M.D., a pediatrician and director of Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College.

Talking to Kids of Any Age

Empower your child to get involved. Kids respond to the idea of taking action, whether that’s using fewer disposable items or writing a letter to your representative. Says Dr. Bernstein, “Tell her, ‘You will have done something awesome if you help solve this, something that helps the world for hundreds if not thousands of years.’ ”

Read up a little first. Global warming may not have been a "thing" back when you went to school (I know it wasn't when I was). So make sure you understand the mechanics of it before you chat, so you know you're giving them the correct facts. In a nutshell, the gases we give off though driving cars, heating our homes, and even just raising cattle (the so-called "greenhouse gases," like carbon dioxide and methane) trap the sun's heat in our atmosphere. That warms the planet more and more each year, leading to melting polar ice caps, rising ocean levels, and warmer and more extreme weather. (The Rainforest Alliance does a pretty good job stating the facts.)

Show and tell. Sometimes, it's easier to show, rather than tell—and a trip to the greenhouse at your local garden center should give your child a sense of how trapping in the sun's rays works on a smaller scale.

Accentuate the positive. Many reports we see in the news frankly don't leave a lot of room for optimism, but throwing up our hands isn't an option. So we need to talk about all the things people have done and continue to do to try to turn the tide. Point out all the ways people are fighting back, from wind turbines and solar panels to owning a hybrid car.

Teach them how they can help. Even the smallest kids can do things to make an impact. "The most effective way of educating my kids has been to get them involved," says Jessica Haddock, founder of eco-friendly product line KyMia. "We have taught our children basics such as turning the light off when you leave the room and conserving water in the shower and when brushing teeth. It's been very important for us to make conservation, reusing, reducing, recycling, and composting a part of their daily lives."

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Ways to Get Everyone Involved in Going Green

Whether you're at home, traveling, or grocery shopping, here are ways your whole family can make a positive impact on the environment:

Cut back on one-use plastic and paper. All those paper towels, plastic cups, and straws end up in landfills—or in the ocean. "It is estimated that 91 percent of all plastic is not recycled, which as you can imagine, can leave a huge carbon footprint," says Tonya Harris, an environmental toxins expert, and founder of Slightly Greener. "Making the switch to glass food storage containers at home and using reusable water bottles can make a big difference." Invest in fun, reusable water bottles and coffee travel mugs for sports games and Starbucks runs, and reusable shopping bags when you hit the store. (And then—don't forget to pack your reusables when you're on the go!) Swapping out beauty and cleaning products that use lots of plastic for more eco-friendly options (like bar soap in place of liquid soap dispensers) can be another option.

Cut back on your lawn space. While news stories have focused on the removal of lawns in drought-plagued southern California, every home can benefit from replacing the lawn with gardens that require less water to maintain—and may even help provide a little food. "Minimizing your grass footprint will reduce water consumption," says Glenn Frey of Black Mountain Landscape Design. "You can achieve a varied and colorful plant palette with drought-tolerant plants—you just have to change your mindset." Frey also recommends composting and using drip irrigation and rain barrels to reduce the amount of water your yard uses.

Watch your energy usage—and go greener. "Reducing the amount of electricity you use in your home is a great way to lower your footprint," says Christina Liu, sustainable packaging program manager at Cisco Systems and author of the book Sustainable Home. "Turn off lights when not in use, unplug electronics when out traveling—they still draw energy when plugged in and not turned —and consider bundling up first or playing Just Dance if you're tempted to turn on the heater." You can make the energy that you do consume a little greener by installing solar panels, or simply purchasing your energy from a company that sources its energy from wind, solar, and other renewable sources.

Shorten your shower. Look for ways to cut back on water use in your house. "Water use doesn't just put our water reservoirs at risk, it also saves energy that water treatment facilities use to treat and deliver our water supply," Harris says. "And best of all, it saves you money! Taking shorter showers, only doing laundry when clothes are truly dirty and only when it's a full load, and not letting the water run the entire time while doing dishes can make a big difference. Or use an energy-efficient dishwasher, which consumes less water than traditional dishwashing."

Shop in season—and as locally as possible. Transporting food across the country (or the planet) eats up a lot of fossil fuels along the way. Choosing in-season produce, and picking it up from local farmers can help you reduce the carbon footprint of what you eat.

Green your transportation. "Reducing your carbon footprint sounds like a daunting task, but small changes can make a big difference," Allison Bean, editorial director for The Spruce, says. "Instead of driving everywhere, consider walking or biking to your destination. Not only are you helping the planet, the physical activity is beneficial to your health, too. For longer distances, consider public transportation, or carpool with another family. Not only good for the planet, swapping driving duty to soccer practice or scouts will help free up some much needed spare time in your day.

Embrace the hand-me-downs. I outfitted my two daughters with hand-me-downs for most of their early years—and then passed on those still-in-great-shape clothes to another new mama. Have a boy and a girl? If you pick more basic clothes, like simple jeans and colorful t-shirts, you may be able to still trade down a fair amount of the wardrobe. If you aren't lucky enough to find a hand-me-down stash for yourself, vintage and consignment stores are a great place to go for cute clothes on the cheap (and environmentally friendly).

Borrow, rent, or swap. Save the planet—and some major cash—by borrowing what you need. Most libraries these days offer more than just books—my local library, for instance, offers music, movies, museum passes, and even a selection of character-shaped cake pans to lend. And numerous online businesses are cropping up around the rental model, allowing you to borrow special occasion dresses on sites like Rent the Runway, or pricey Lego sets and robots on Pley. You can often find very gently used (or even new!) gear, clothing, and toys on Facebook swap pages, eBay, or apps like Letgo.

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