Plastic is clogging up the oceans and could wipe out pretty much everything that lives in the sea.
Tanya Jackson, The Independent
Last week, my five-year-old son Tom barricaded himself in his room and refused to talk to anyone. After 20 minutes of cajoling, I finally got it out of him – and it had nothing to do with turning off Paw Patrol. No, he’d simply lost a tiny piece of Lego down the bathroom plughole and was sure it would kill a fish. Because a while ago, I had told him that plastic is clogging up the oceans and could wipe out pretty much everything that lives in the sea.
Oh yes, he was absolutely too young to process that. But like many parents, my own underlying eco-anxiety has started to spill out into our conversations. Lying to my two children goes against all my instincts – I’m terrified for their future and I want them to be prepared. Australia is still burning, floods seem to get worse and more frequent every year, the rainforest is being razed for palm oil and soya beans, and every year we are wiping between 200 and 2,000 species off the face of the earth. Our window for action is shrinking rapidly, and yet in the UK we are cutting down more irreplaceable ancient trees – the natural solution to our carbon crisis – to make the train journey to Birmingham a bit quicker.
But while I have no certainty to offer my kids about the earth they’ll inherit, the least I can do is give them the childhood they deserve. And the fundamental principle of that is to feel safe.
The world was a different place when I was young. Before digital media came along, the news was on a need-to-know basis. My world was a suburban village in Hertfordshire. The Falklands, the recession and “the environment” were all part of the great big other that existed outside my immediate experience. Age 10, I read the Funday Times. I had all the time and space in the world to play, create and dream. Our kids don’t have this kind of separation.
Eco-anxiety is hitting children the hardest. In a recent survey by Global Action, 77 per cent of kids said they are worried about the environment. Most of my friends’ kids are worried, heck, Holly Willoughby’s children are worried. And, according to the same survey, more than half of our teachers feel ill-equipped to deal with the issue. How do you promote positivity when you don’t believe it yourself?
The first answer is to stop trying to forge mini-Greta Thunbergs. To me, she is a beacon of hard facts, unaffected by the lies, flattery and political power games that try to obscure her. But let’s not forget that before she made the decision to strike from school by herself every Friday, she was so depressed about the future that she stopped speaking and eating. So yes, while older kids can engage with a positive protest, I was uneasy about taking Tom, then four, to the climate marches last year. Why introduce complex issues with so many overwhelming negatives to a child before he’s old enough to understand them?
The second is to stop over-explaining. It’s natural to vent to the audience that listens to you when those in power won’t. But looking back, Tom didn’t really need to know about the impact of grazing animals when we gave up meat – we could have just said we wanted to save money for Christmas. I’m also pretty sure he didn’t ask for a lecture on intensive farming practices when we started ordering organic veg boxes, but he got one. And then when I told him we wouldn’t be having balloons at his birthday parties anymore because balloons don’t compost… Ok, that one needed a real explanation, but maybe we didn’t have to tell him about the plastic island in the Pacific just yet.
There are no easy answers to our children’s questions. But having learnt my lessons with Tom, I’m determined not to confuse or scare his younger brother by telling him too much too soon. So I’m stepping back until he asks. In the meantime, we’ll do beach cleans, plant wildflowers and donate to rainforest charities as birthday presents. And maybe our kids will have the space to play, create and dream in safety, until the day they can do something about it.
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