Should we be working with children about climate change?
March 23, 2011 § 12 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 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?
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?
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…