How Do I Talk to my Child About Endangered Species or the Environment?

October 24, 2019

A western lowland gorilla infant in exhibit

Written By

Allison Price

Director of Learning Experiences

As parents, our goal is to raise our children to be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted individuals. We want them to grow up to be successful in the world, but also to make a positive impact on their surroundings, on either a small or large scale.

If you’re like me, a lot of that includes helping my young son develop an ecological ethos; I teach him not to squish bugs, to gently touch plants, and to observe and admire the natural world around him. But as our little ones grow older and more aware, how do we—and when do we—introduce them to the weightier subject matter of conservation?

Cognitively, the problem with a lot of environmental education available through television, books, and even local nature programs is that it’s very easy to get too abstract too soon. The minimum age for talking about abstract concepts is 9 years old; before then, the stuff we talk about with our kids should be tangible, tactile, and concrete—or should be addressed through allegory and storytelling.

Emotionally, my advice is similar: slow and steady wins the race. It turns out that introducing concepts of environmental degradation too early in a child’s development can be detrimental. Young kids who learn that the planet and its animals are dying or doomed do not always become conservation crusaders. In fact, the opposite happens: they emotionally turn off to the whole concept.

Psychologists tell us the number one stressor in life is feeling responsible for things we can’t control. As adults, we know that feeling well, but kids can be susceptible too. That’s not to say we should never discuss conservation with children, but rather that it’s important to scale up relative to a child’s agency, or ability to effect change.

As the writer David Sobel put it, “Let us allow [children] to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”