Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping and Earth Day is here. After a winter punctuated by ice storms, power outages and pandemic isolation, the sights and sounds of spring feel like sensory salvation.
Parents, let this long-awaited transition be an invitation to get your children outside, nurture an appreciation for nature, and talk about climate change.
We are acutely aware of the struggles linked to social distancing. Screen time is high, often unavoidably. Peer-to-peer connectedness is minimal. Access to outdoor community spaces is limited. As a pediatrician, I see the associated health ramifications daily: depression and anxiety, decreased focus and attention, disordered eating, and obesity.
But as the seasons shift, take advantage of extended daylight hours and venture outdoors. The benefits of time spent in nature are countless and include improved mood, reduced stress and anxiety, enhanced cognition and focus, and prosocial behavior.
For young children, embrace simplicity. Take nature walks after school and notice how the same tree changes over time. Plant a small garden and discuss how living things need clean air and water to thrive. Read picture books that celebrate the wilderness. Plant the seeds of environmental wonder now. Over time, they will yield a sense of responsibility and duty to protect nature's limited resources.
Older children and adolescents may be more aware of climate change, our role in it, and its threat to ecosystems, health and livelihoods. Engage in honest but hopeful discussion. Relate recent severe weather events and wildfires to the changing climate. Discuss the unequal toll these events have on different communities. Examine how your family's choices and behaviors contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions and identify forward-thinking solutions, such as adopting a more plant-based diet or using public transportation.
Existential anxiety secondary to the climate crisis is increasing among youth. Inspire your children to harness that anxious energy and transform it into action and civic engagement. Lead by example. Stay current on local, state and federal legislation and empower your children to advocate for sound climate policy. Remind them that it is young activists, after all, who have galvanized the rest of the world into action to ensure that future generations inherit a livable planet.
In honor of Earth Day, bedtime has ended with an appropriately themed book each night this week in my household. The concept of "forever" looms large in the developing mind of my 3-year-old son.
"Mama," he recently asked after lights went out, "Is Earth forever?"
"Sweetheart," I said, "The answer to that is up to us."
For more resources on talking with children about climate change, visit: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/all-around/Pages/Talking-with-Children-about-Climate-Change.aspx
Dr. Shaili Rajput is a Portland pediatrician and parent. She has a master's degree in public health and is a climate advocate with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
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