Should we be working with children about climate change?

March 23, 2011 § 10 Comments

Climate change community groups often want to work with children. ‘We must get into the schools,’ says someone and there is a nod of agreement. It’s worth thinking about the psychology behind this. Why is this idea so appealing? And why is it so damaging?

The appeal

The appeal is clear. It’s fun working with children: they’re responsive, creative and willing. And it’s certainly easier than working with white-van-man, frequent fliers or the oil industry.
The reasons given for working with children are usually two-fold:

  • We need to influence them while they are young. If they understand the issue and the effect of their actions, they will grow up finding it natural to care for the environment.
  • It’s a good way of getting to their parents. Who can resist their child pleading with them to change the lightbulbs because it will save a polar bear?

The damage

Both reasons are suspect. The first reason assumes that instruction – at best participatory, at worst didactic – is the route either to action or to the inculcation of positive values towards the environment. There is little evidence for this. We know that information based campaigns have a limited impact with adults, so why should we expect children to be different? As for values – these tend to be formed through experience, relationship, identification and social systems, not through information. If the school has an influence on values it will be through its culture, ethos and the relationships and experiences it offers not through the information it provides.

Both reasons also raise direct ethical questions.  It is easy to engage the sympathies of children with stories of damage to the natural world and images of suffering animals they will identify with. But children have very little power. Of all the sections of society who might make an impact on climate change, they have the least influence, the least agency, the least leverage. There is a real risk of raising levels of anxiety amongst children that will not only cause distress in the immediate term but will in the long term lead to those children turning against the environmental causes we hoped they might espouse.

When I was 10 a speaker came to my school and told us about food shortages and starvation in the third world. I rushed home and explained to my parents that we needed to grow more food. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t accede to my idea of banding together with the neighbours and turning all our back gardens into a corn field.  I was left haunted by images of dying children, guilt at my good fortune and the anxiety that feeds on powerlessness. In adolescence I became determinedly indifferent to the appeals from 3rd world charities. As an adult I have continued to find them difficult to relate to.

We need to ask – what happens to the child whose parents are indifferent to their attempts to get them to act? What happens to the child who is overwhelmed by stories of disasters he or she cannot influence?

Projection

But the deeper question is – why are adults so keen to focus on children? Why concentrate on the weakest, least influential members of society and ask them to act? The answer I think lies in the process psychoanalysis calls projection where unwanted feelings or parts of the self are split off and attributed to somebody else. “I’m not angry/selfish/mean/neglectful – you are/he is/she is/they are.”

Climate change makes most adults working on it feel powerless. We compare the actions we are capable of with the scale of the problem and feel weak. We look at the extent of our influence and feel helpless. We struggle to combat our contrary desires to consume and feel shame. We feel like children. Children – who are actually socially and politically powerless – are an ideal receptacle for the projection of these uncomfortable and unacceptable feelings.

By focusing on the weakest members of society and influencing them, the not-very-powerful adults make themselves feel better at the expense of the absolutely-not-powerful children. By making them act, we prove that we are not as powerless as we feel.

What to do?

So what should we do? Work from WWF found that the best predictor of pro-environmental behaviours in adulthood was children’s direct experience of the rest of the natural world – being outside, playing, exploring, relating, wondering at the extraordinary, mind-blowing nature of the other-than-human world. Richard Louv has recently popularised the idea of ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ – a rather medicalised term for contemporary children’s lack of connection to nature, but the point is clear. Children need experience and connection with the rest of the natural world. Adults need to find more creative ways of dealing with their distress at their powerlessness – talking with each other, sharing their feelings, offering each other support in difficult times.

So – if you want to work with children – take them outside and let them play. Use other ways to deal with your own despair and powerlessness.

This Australian site has some sensible advice for talking to children…

http://www.psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/children_environment/

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§ 10 Responses to Should we be working with children about climate change?

  • Pippa Vine says:

    Yes, it’s crucial we don’t try to manage our anxiety on climate change by putting the weight of that anxiety onto our children… and it’s hard to find the balance with this.
    Surely it’s also vital that we find a way to empower young people to respond to the crisis we all face and support them when they want to take the initiative to protect their own future. Go to: http://www.bioneers.org/ and hear 16-year-old Alec Loorz, the founder (aged 12) of Kids vs Global Warming, calling for a million kids around the world to join the IMatter march on Sunday 8 May (Mothers Day in the US).

  • John Shade says:

    Your post is an important and compassionate one, and I hope it will give pause to others who, like yourself, are convinced that human actions are having a major (and reversible) impact on our climate. I do not belong to this group, since I have found not a shred of convincing evidence that our CO2 releases, for example, are having a discernible effect on climate. I also note that nothing unusual, given past variability, has happened to any weather phenomena over the past decades. Finally, I note that a great many groups and individuals have seen political and financial advantage in acting as if ‘the debate is over’ as far as climate change is concerned. Perhaps I should add pschological advantage to this list?

  • John Shade says:

    I’m sorry that my previous comment didn’t get past your filters. What did you not like about it?

    I have featured your essay here on my own blog: http://climatelessons.blogspot.com/2011/04/not-just-another-brick-in-wall-hey.html

    Your comments on that would be most welcome.

  • NikFromNYC says:

    Show these to some children and see what raw data does to corrupt a young mind:

    “Gosh Miss Randall, why was it warming the same way back before cars and aero-planes?”

  • Barry Woods says:

    Preaching to kids in school (and it is preaching) will just alienate them, the smarter ones might even ask difficult questions…

    How does the climate change activists answer a sceptical child with a difficult question(think teenager)..

    Ie the temperature have plateaued for 13 years, even Phil Jones says so, etc,etc?

    Explain ‘Hide the Decline to me’, I’ve seen Prof Richard Muller’s video on youtube saying what bad science this was, and he is not even a sceptic?

    Can’t really insult them by calling them a deniar, think 10:10 ‘no pressure’ video..

    What to do if the parents are sceptica and don’t want an ‘activist message’ thrust upon the school..

    My infants schools headteacher cancelled all involvement with 10:10 campaign after the first minute of the video (before blowing up the kids), saying we do not label, single out children like that…

    Any activist group that wants to come to my kids school had better be VERY accurate with the science, any alarmism and the will be out of there.

  • Barry Woods says:

    Hi, Sorry forgot to say how I came across your blog..

    The blogger John Shade had some positive thoughts on this post.

    http://climatelessons.blogspot.com/2011/04/not-just-another-brick-in-wall-hey.html

  • Barry Woods says:

    A collation of reports of how children are being frightened…

    http://climatelessons.blogspot.com/p/climate-anxiety-reports-of-frightened.html

    A personal ancedote, my 5 year old daughter came home from school last year, looking worried, started switching off all the lights..

    Great, I thought save some electricity, We are aways saying turn the lights off when you leave a room..

    I asked why..

    She said the Polar bears are dieing because of human’s
    (had had the wwf – earth hour people, and a eco CO2 project)

    What can you say to that… as a parent

    I imagine when she is 14 and realises that about a 1000 polar bears are shot every year (culled because they are a bit of a nuisance) she might realise that the activist don’t care about the POlar bear, but are just using it for manipulating people’s emotions..

    These sort of ‘poster child’s do not work long term, and increasingly make people more cynical, so the activists have to ramp up the alarmism to get a similar guilty effect, which breeds more cynicism.

    Even on the X-factor final a couple of years ago, a highly emotional song with a big video wall in the background… A polar bear appeared, the audience AND the judges laughed, recognising the PR / media manipulation of their emotions for what it is.

    Jo Abbess (climate change activist) realises the damage that this type of approach has…

    http://www.joabbess.com/2010/04/14/polar-bear-poster-child/

    Jo: “So, I’m standing in the G2 theatre at the School of Oriental and African Studies, after the “Sceptic Backlash” event, talking with two Climate Change activists, one Irish, one American.

    The question arises : since our lifestyles are causing deadly Climate Change for people in other parts of the world, maybe we should have communications based around pictures of suffering children ?

    I disagree. I point out that when the environmentalists put out posters about Polar Bears, that the audience pretty quickly realised that the Polar Bears were being used as a “poster child” for Climate Change, and they started to mock the campaigning.”

  • allanhayes says:

    Dear Ro,
    I was referred to your article “Should we be working with children about climate change?”. I wonder if you have come across the following:

    Thanks, and best wishes,

    Allan

  • [...] The psychology of working with children on climate change. Ro Randall. [...]

  • Tom says:

    As another commenter has said, I think the key is empowerment. I spent my time at school pushing for it to become sustainable, much to the irritance of school management, but much to the benefit of my own personal development. The lesson is not ‘don’t work with children’ but ‘ensure you work with children for their benefit, not just your own’.

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