Children Change Their Parents’ Attitudes about Climate Change

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager became famous this spring for launching a student-led environmental movement to compel adults to take action on climate change. Greta has been missing school on Fridays and spending it campaigning in front of the Swedish parliament with the sign: “School Strike for Climate.” Students in over 70 countries have started following her lead. But before she launched her campaign to convince the world about climate change, Thunberg started at home with her parents. She persuaded them with a barrage of facts and showed them related documentaries. Thunberg told the Guardian newspaper, “After a while, they started listening to what I actually said. That’s when I realized I could make a difference.”

According to a paper published May 6 in Nature Climate Change, Thunberg is not the only child as many other young people have been equally convincing. The report written by a team of social scientists and ecologists from North Carolina State University found that children are successful in boosting their parents’ level of concern about climate change because the children’s views on climate are generally free from any political ideology, unlike adults. Also, parents really do care about what their children think even on socially charged issues such as climate change or sexual orientation.

Postulating that students might be ideal influencers, the researchers decided to test how the exposure of 10-to-14–year-olds to climate change coursework might affect their views as well as those of their parents. The proposed pass-through outcome turned out to be true as teaching a youngster about the warming climate every so often raised concerns among his/her parents about the issue. Fathers and conservative parents exhibited the biggest change in attitudes, and daughters emerged more effective than sons in shifting their parents’ attitudes. These encouraging results suggest that discussions between generations may be an effective starting point in fighting the effects of a warming environment.

Graduate student Danielle Lawson, the paper’s lead author said, “This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit. It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”

Scientists in this field find these conclusions heartening. Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University who was not involved in the research but works to bridge the gap between scientists and stakeholders on the issue, said, “These encouraging results suggest that not only are children increasingly engaged in advocating for their future, they are also effective advocates to their parents. As a woman myself and someone who frequently engages with conservative Christian communities. I love that it’s the daughters who were found to be most effective at changing their hard-nosed dads’ minds.”

Nicole Holthuis, a researcher in science education at Stanford University, who was not a researcher on the study, said, “The intergenerational model is a promising avenue for those of us in climate change education. Too often, scientists and educators believe that delivering the facts of global warming will be enough to change minds. With this study, they’re addressing a critical need to acknowledge that the sociopolitical aspects of climate change make it very difficult for people to take [the facts] in. Maybe we can leverage these intergenerational relationships in ways that can be very productive. As a next step, I would like to see if increasing levels of concern from this curriculum translate into actual changes in behavior”.

Child-focused lessons on similar issues also alter parents’ actions. A  study conducted in 2016 on Girl Scout troops found that exposure to an educational program on energy consumption resulted in reduced energy consumption by their families.

For the North Carolina report, researchers designed a curriculum consisting of four classroom activities and a field-based service-learning project. Of the 238 families participating in that study, 92 served as controls and these children’s teachers did not refer to the new curriculum. Participating parents were invited to view the outdoor field projects and interviewed by their children. Instead of talking about climate change directly, children enquired about local changes they might have noticed.

Lawson says, “Parents responded to a series of questions from their children such as ‘How have you seen the weather change? Have you ever seen the sea-level rise? ‘ We wanted to take climate change out of it just to make it more ideologically neutral.”

Parents were surveyed at the beginning and end of the study on demographic characteristics like age, political ideology and their views on climate change.

Concern about the core issue was recorded on a 17-point scale from least concerned at ‘–8’ to most concerned at ‘+8.  Over two years, the level of concern increased among all parents even those in the control group. But the parents who engaged in the curriculum with their children presented larger increases and parents who were male or identified as a conservative virtually doubled their level of concern about climate change from relatively unconcerned (–2) to relatively concerned (+2).

Lawson believes that the level of trust between parents and their children made the conversations about climate change easier. She says, “That doesn’t necessarily exist between two adults talking to each other”.

The authors could not explain why girls were more effective than boys but proposed that girls may have been more concerned, to begin with, or emerged as better communicators in this age group than boys. Although this study doesn’t measure behavioral change, its findings give hope, says Lawson, “that if we can promote this community-building and conversation-building on climate change, we can come together and work together on a solution.”

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