Mary Ray Cate offers parents these Buddhist principles to help children with their fears about climate change.
It’s our children who will suffer most from the climate crisis. As we struggle with our own emotional reactions to global heating and wonder what we can do in response, Buddhist wisdom offers us ways to understand, cope, and act. It also gives us a framework for explaining the crisis to our children.
Children respond well to problem-solving. The crisis is scary and confusing, but we can do something about it.
Learning about climate change can be scary and depressing for kids and adults alike. Here are some of the Buddha’s teachings that are particularly helpful to keep in mind when talking with your children about the climate crisis.
Impermanence is a fact of life that’s difficult to accept. Everything changes, and not always in the ways we’d prefer. In order to accept reality, recognizing impermanence is a necessary step.
Children understand and absorb information from an early age. Every child is different, but there are some general guidelines for introducing difficult topics in age-appropriate stages.
Learning about the world as it is through direct observation begins at birth. Toddlers often find worms and baby birds fascinating and love to play in the dirt. At around age two or three, children can recognize changes that occur with the cycle of the seasons, tides, and phases of the moon. Preschoolers can plant seeds and watch them grow, or look at old family photos to increase their awareness of the inevitability of change.
Awareness of impermanence is the first step. Accepting change is more difficult. But in order to move on to what we can do about a change we don’t like, we have to accept that it’s happening. If we refuse to accept the reality of climate change, we won’t take steps to improve the situation.
Here are two practices that can help us accept change and not be attached to views. The first is being present and mindful in each moment. The second is gratitude.
Mindfulness: Young children naturally live in the moment, but older children may need guidance to be present in the real world. Limiting time with electronic devices, taking them on outings to watch birds and animals, and giving them permission to explore the outdoors can help children be present. Some will like sketching, writing poems, or making lists of what they observe outside.
Have you tried meditating outdoors with a child? Pick a spot and sit quietly for five to ten minutes. What do you see, hear, smell, and feel? Return at different times of day and in different seasons and notice any changes. Or just focus on breathing. Ask the earth how you can help, and listen for answers.
Gratitude: We can feel grateful for what we have now, rather than focusing on what we may lose in the future. Unless we take time to appreciate and be grateful for the earth, we may not care enough to want to save it.
As soon as children start learning to talk we can begin teaching them to say thank you. A daily practice of having each child give thanks to the earth for something they appreciate can start early. Saying thank you at mealtimes and bedtime encourages them to think about their relationship to what they value and what they enjoy.
Giving—our time, money, and energy—to turn the tide of ecological disaster is crucial at this point. Most of us feel less helpless and more hopeful when we’re doing something for the earth.
Children can come up with creative ways to raise money. When they were six and nine years old, sisters Katherine and Isabelle Adams became concerned about girls in other countries missing school because they had to spend all day hauling water. By selling origami ornaments with their parents’ help they’ve raised $1.5 million to bring clean water and awareness of the world water crisis to people everywhere. Other kids are selling lemonade and baking cookies to assist environmental organizations.
Some elementary age children have organized groups to raise awareness and have become activists and public speakers. While in fourth grade, Marina Weber and Joanna Whysner started the Global
Warming Express, an after-school political action club. Marina was upset when she first learned about global warming, so her mom asked, “What do you want to do about it?” Writing a book, published in 2017 and illustrated by Joanna, and then starting the club were Marina’s answers.
The Four Brahmaviharas
The brahmaviharas, or “divine abodes,” are virtues that can be cultivated through meditation and instilled in children by being good role models. All four of them—loving-kindness, compassion, joy,
and equanimity—can help us respond to the ecological crisis.
Loving-kindness: Loving-kindness, also called benevolence or goodwill toward all beings, is a foundation of ecological consciousness. Unless we care, we won’t act to protect the biosphere. Children who develop a strong connection with nature by spending unstructured time outdoors are more likely to become environmental leaders. We can teach them to respect life and treat all living beings with loving-kindness, no matter how small or weak.
Compassion: Compassion is feeling genuine concern about others’ suffering and actually doing something to relieve it. Ways children can be earth helpers include picking up trash, composting, recycling, turning out lights, conserving water, and not wasting food. These are good habits that can begin early.
In addition, with the help of their families, children can eat more plant-based meals; grow an organic garden; ride a bike, walk, or take public transit when possible; divest from companies and banks involved with the fossil fuel industry; urge their legislators to adopt needed reforms; and minimize air travel.
Empathetic Joy: We can rejoice in the happiness of others, even if we didn’t contribute to it. Today there’s much to rejoice in about the courage of youth speaking out about global heating, in the successes of environmental organizations in protecting habitats and wildlife, and in the political victories of “Green” candidates.
If we can find joy in each moment and communicate that joy to children, we can better handle all our emotions and heal our suffering. Learning about what others are doing to address the crisis is comforting to children and can create a sense of community.
Equanimity: The ability to remain calm and even-minded no matter what situations we face is necessary as we engage in nonviolent actions to bring about change. Equanimity gives us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change and allows us to take a calm, problem-solving approach to the things we can. Children respond well to problem-solving. Of course, the crisis can be scary and confusing, but we can do something about it.
All situations are the result of many intersecting causes and conditions. There’s no one underlying source of our problems. However, the more we understand the reasons behind the climate crisis, the better able we are to address it.
There are different theories about how we arrived in our current predicament. Many of them blame human mistakes, greed, shortsightedness, and alienation from the rest of the natural world. But, as astrophysicist Adam Frank suggests, perhaps our situation is mainly the unanticipated consequence of our discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels.
Whatever the roots of our current crisis—a crisis that’s political, economic, and biological, as well as social and spiritual in nature—it’s helpful to turn to the Buddha’s teachings for guidance.
Rather than blaming, we can use our human ingenuity to help solve the climate crisis and we can reaffirm our dependence on the rest of nature. Interdependence, or “interbeing” as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, is a Buddhist concept that’s shared by traditional cultures around the world, as well as being validated by systems thinking.
We’re all part of one whole, a biosphere composed of many ecosystems, and we depend on the healthy functioning of each part to live. We need to free ourselves from the delusion that we each have an individual self, and we need to recognize our kinship with plants, insects, other animals, rocks, soil, and trees. Seeing human beings as separate is what’s gotten us into trouble through xenophobia, aversion, and greed.
Elementary school is the perfect time to introduce the basics of climate science and explain how everything is interrelated. Unfortunately, many schools, even at the high school level, do not teach ecology or climate science. As adults we need to be well informed. At climate.nasa.gov and climatekids.nasa.gov you’ll find answers to many questions that come up for both adults and children.
We have the tools to reverse, or at least minimize, climate change and global warming. If we act now it’s possible to lessen the suffering of all the creatures on this planet.