Parents aren’t getting it, and that’s a problem.
“Hey, Mom,” Cyan Cuthbert, 15, asked one day after class at Walter B. Saul High School in Philadelphia. “Did you know we’re gonna die because people like to litter?”
Like a lot of youngsters, Cuthbert, a freshman, is obsessed with climate change, a big topic at the school, which specializes in the study of agriculture and the environment. Grown-ups, she said with astonishment, are simply not scared enough of melting polar ice caps and acidifying oceans.
“It’s not registered in our parents’ heads yet,” Cuthbert continued. “I want a job, a house, kids someday. But I can’t have that if the Earth is on fire, and my children won’t ever know what an elephant is.”
Aggrieved, bewildered, and fueled by the clear-eyed righteousness of youth, students chafe at what they see as the ghastly ignorance and unforgivable inattention of elders who wrecked Eden and are now preparing to pass it down, ruined and burning, to their children.
While no precise data exist on how climate change manifests itself in children’s behavior, it’s becoming clear that kids’ perpetual presence on social media and the internet stokes zealous preoccupation and incites a woke attitude that can’t be extinguished.
“Kids are freaked out and terrified,” said Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, who served as an expert witness in Juliana v. the United States, a lawsuit brought in U.S. District Court in Oregon in 2015 by young people claiming to have a constitutional right to be protected from climate change. The case was dismissed in January.
“Some are unraveling, and the little ones have no coping mechanisms,” she said. “One 4-year-old believes his family dog will become extinct and die. Some older kids are wondering why they should even bother going to college. Many fear having children of their own.
“Young people are really feeling awful.”
Mental health experts across America are hearing kids express the same worries about the planet, noted Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio. “Older adolescents are more concerned than adults,” she said. “Child psychologists are saying their patients are constantly talking about this.”
While climate change troubles many kids, the children of parents who say it’s all a hoax must deal with the same worries, “only on steroids,” noted Van Susteren. “That’s because parents are standing in the way of actions that children know are essential for their survival.”
Fretting about animals
Disciples of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who has intoned, “I want you to panic” about climate change, American youngsters begin worrying at early ages. They often first fret about the plight of animals — koalas perishing in Australian firestorms, polar bears struggling with a puddling icescape.
Kids get older and begin to believe that grown-ups are not willing to tackle the tough issues.
“It’s the same with gun violence,” said Robin Gurwitch, a Duke University Medical Center expert on traumatized children. She explained that the outspoken students from Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 youngsters were killed in February 2018, became antigun activists when they detected grown-ups’ unwillingness to engage. “They said to adults, ‘If you won’t do something, we’ll stand up,’” Gurwitch said.
Youth agency over climate change is apparent throughout the Philadelphia area, according to Maria Stroup, director of Impact Center in Haverford, a nonprofit staffed by former educators who connect socially conscious youngsters with dozens of community organizations.
“Kids are p — ed,” Stroup said. “Battling climate change is not an adult movement; it’s kids’.”
Caroline Fleishchner, 14, of Haverford, explained, “I taught my parents about composting.” Sofia Lammot, 13, of Villanova, added, “We’re the ones who have to make the world better.”
In a sunlit room in Walter B. Saul High School, Cyan Cuthbert and her friends met with Gregory Smith, a natural-resource management teacher.
“Many parents can’t teach climate change because they don’t know it,” Smith said. “So it’s up to the parents to listen to their kids.”
There’s no shortage of knowledge and intensity here among the students, who left classes on Dec. 6 last year to attend a climate strike at City Hall.
“If the world is going to become uninhabitable before I’m 30,” asked junior Demetri Rex-Bush, 17, “what’s the point in making tough decisions about my life, like what I want to be?”
“We have emotions about everybody in the world perishing young and drowning after the world’s temperatures rise,” said Tameisha Copper, 18, a senior. “We have to think about how to stop people from drinking bottled water.”
“We’ll have lung problems from fires,” said Maxine Antinucci, a 17-year-old junior who gave a speech at the climate strike. “Species and crops will be lost. I tell my mom to stop wasting energy by sleeping with the TV on. She tells me, ‘By the time the world is too hot, I’ll be dead.’ “
While many kids may know more than parents about climate change, experts say, it’s incumbent upon moms and dads to learn enough to, if not guide their youngsters, then at least understand them.
“As a caregiver, it’s your job,” Gurwitch said. “Just Google the basic facts.”
For the young ones around 4 or 5, tell them Earth is wrapped in a giant blanket to keep the temperature right, Gurwitch suggested. Humans burn fuels that put gases in the air, adding too many blankets and making the planet too hot.
“So, how do we take the blankets off?”
Small things count, like reducing the use of plastics, turning lights off, walking in nature to understand that it’s worth preserving.
And, Gurwitch stressed, “The response to kids on climate change is never ‘Don’t worry.’”
To start a talk on climate change, first ask your children what they’ve heard, Van Susteren, the Washington psychiatrist, said.
Divest them of “irrational thoughts,” such as the family dog is becoming extinct.
Never invalidate their fears. Figure out what the family can do together, like calculating the household carbon footprint, planting a vegetable garden, talking to their friends about climate change, asking kids’ schools to introduce climate dialogue.
Anthony Giancatarino, 37, of Mount Airy, said his latest thinking about climate change was sparked by his 6-year-old daughter Anna’s exasperated question one day:
“When is it ever gonna snow?”
Having seen photos of her parents knee-deep in Philadelphia drifts, Anna wondered why she hadn’t seen a blizzard or two.
“I told her the planet is too warm and sick,” said Giancatarino, a consultant for nonprofits on energy issues. “She began to understand.”
Giancatarino said he and Anna wrote a fable together about a tree that implored a woodcutter not to cut it down. The woodcutter’s daughter suggests growing more trees.
“I want to teach Anna about caring for the earth,” Giancatarino said. “Because, I told her, right now we don’t.”
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