Ecophobia is a pretty simple phenomenon: When adults’ ecological concerns are passed on to children, those children tend to grow suspicious of the natural world and disengage. David Sobel of Antioch University New England discovered the trend behind the neologism in the ’90s. At that time, global warming was grabbing some headlines, but it hadn’t become a major political issue. Sobel says when that changed, ecophobia became a more significant cultural force.
“When I originally formulated the idea it was in relationship to … imposing education on young kids to make them feel responsible for saving the rainforest,” says Sobel. “Now I think it’s a similar kind of thing with climate change.”
Sobel has a saying he likes to repeat: “No tragedies before 4th grade.” But it’s hard to teach about deforestation without also teaching about the severe consequences that follow. All those Earth Week modules plant real concerns in young heads. Kids have long been taught — correctly, for at least the last century — that the world is under assault. Now, as the effects of climate change become noticeable, that tragedy can feel close to home for children.
The problem this presents, Sobel suggests, is that when you talk to kids about rising seas, they think the high tide will wipe out their grade school tomorrow. Take a planetary issue and run it through the self-centered, time-agnostic filter of a child and you’ve got yourself a crisis.
The trick, Sobel says, to keeping kids engaged with the natural world is to “soft-pedal the danger and give them opportunities for constructive engagement.” Sobel’s colleague Dr. Louis Chawla of the University of Colorado Denver who studies the development of active care for the natural world, agrees. “You have to think about this in terms of different ages,” she explains. “Because there are huge developmental changes in children’s ability to understand climate change.”
Chawla suggests that it’s impossible to isolate kids from the frightening reality of climate change because it’s a breathlessly covered topic in media, compounded by alarmist elementary school teachers. So how do parents belay the fears to keep from raising a generation of nature averse window-gazers?
“It’s critical for parents to understand what their children have already heard, what they’re already thinking about, and what they’re already feeling about it,” says Chawla. From there, he sees it as an opportunity to find what excites the kid and develop a plan of action that allows them to feel like they’re involved.
For a good solution, Sobel points to the Ladder of Environmental Responsibility in his paper Climate Change Meets Ecophobia. It breaks down age-appropriate activities by grade, helping kids enter the natural world at a confident, measured pace:
Help create seasonal crafts and decorations in the house that are in line with seasonal changes and equinoxes. This is easy enough to do considering kids already decorate for Christmas and Easter. This allows them to tune in to the rhythm of the seasons.
Get the kid out to help with flower gardening. This requires fingers in the dirt and incidental contact with worms bugs and plants. It also helps them learn what it takes for things to grow.
Graduate to vegetables. Same story here, though the motivation is amped up by being able to eat the things that come out of the ground.
Get them to keep the yard and neighborhood clean. It develops a sense of stewardship in the world beyond their backyard.
Be responsible for home recycling. An even greater sense of stewardship and action here. Children begin to feel as if something they are doing actively matters.
Start composting. This is an awesome way to learn about the circle of life beyond what they’ve gleaned from The Lion King.
Have them help monitor and reduce house energy use. That means, for once, the kid gets to tell the parents to turn off the lights.
The plan is a slow burn for sure, but it’s way more effective than inundating children with a white-knuckled fear of a doomed world. Get the whole family outside, be aware of the issues, and greet the warming future without fear.