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Perspective | Magazine

The world is a scary place. What do we tell the kids?

We face big challenges, but even young children can help address them, if we’ll let them.

(Adobe Stock)

My 7-year-old grandson Marsden lives in Northern California, where he can see the sky darken with smoke from forest fires, watch news reports about devastating mudslides, and feel the ground tremble. Ravenous zombies and earth-destroying asteroids are so culturally prevalent he probably hears kids talk about them at school or on the playground. When his class learns about dinosaurs, the lesson ends sadly with their extinction. How long, I wonder, until he connects the dots and asks if we, like the dinosaurs, are all going to die.

While answering questions about mortality has always been challenging for grown-ups, today’s global dangers — including nuclear war, species extinction, rising oceans, leaking toxins, drug-resistant bacteria, and killer storms — are raising the stakes for parents. In the face of this, since no child should live in fear, it’s important that adults be reassuring.

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It might be comforting to offer up the idea of an afterlife, but as a secular humanist I don’t believe in one. And, as a realist with a dark imagination, I see multiple ways the upbeat analyses developed by Steven Pinker and other optimists can unravel. While 2018 may have been “the best year in human history,” as Nicholas Kristof has argued, it wasn’t so for glaciers, coral reefs, butterflies, and bees, which are melting, bleaching, and dying off, respectively and ominously.

This means that I’ll respond honestly to my grandson if and when he asks the most fearful questions about these and other trends. First, I’ll tell him that some threats are more real than others, that zombies don’t exist, and that it’s extremely unlikely a giant asteroid will hit the planet in our lifetimes. And then, because we should never stop trying to foster hope in children, I’ll emphasize the possibility of acting in support of policies that address real dangers.

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As a baby boomer who went to schools where we practiced atomic bomb drills, I’m in the first generation that had valid reasons to fear humanicide. We knew that whole cities could be destroyed in a flash, and also that weapons got a lot more dangerous after World War II. What makes the 21st century different is the plethora of dangers coming at us. What makes it similar is that we can still tell our children they can rise above their fears and push back.

In seventh grade my friends and I formed an anti-nuclear group and protested outside the principal’s office during bomb drills. While other students were instructed to “duck and cover,” we made fliers about the folly of trying to hide from radiation, and went by bus to Washington, D.C., to protest the Cold War reliance on weapons of mass destruction. Across the globe, the anti-nuclear movement played a role in the adoption of international nonproliferation and test-ban treaties. The fight against nuclear weapons continues, and I can only hope my grandson will join me in calling for their abolition.

We can foster hope in children through real-life models. The Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivors started leading the fight for gun control as teenagers. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for the education of girls who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17, began blogging about conditions under the Taliban when she was just 11 years old. And Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who inspired the school-strikes-for-climate movement, launched her activism at 15 when she criticized negotiators at the UN climate summit in Poland.

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Thunberg highlights the generational shift that starts from the premise that kids have the most to gain from saving the future. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, she decried companies and politicians who value money more than life and insisted that “transformational action” was needed to “safeguard the living conditions for future generations.”

Another perfect, hopeful cause for kids to support is the development of sustainable energy through a Green New Deal. Cosponsored by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Congress, and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, this resolution recognizes urgent problems and points to appropriately scaled solutions. Before rejecting it as extreme or impractical, politicians and pundits should take the interests of rising generations — including their own children and grandchildren — to heart. There’s nothing less practical than ignoring looming dangers.

“It’s true,” we can say even to very young children, “we live in dangerous times, but this means that we all need to act.” Reading them Dr. Seuss books like The Lorax and especially Horton Hears a Who! will provide examples of such action. While The Lorax deals with protecting the environment, Horton shows a world in imminent danger that is saved when one girl adds her voice to the general outcry.

Growing up in a progressive family in the 1950s, I was taught about injustice as something that should be resisted. I sang antiwar and anti-racism songs before I knew much about either war or racism. In this way parents and grandparents need not wait for their kids to ask about global threats before starting to talk about them.

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Kids can create their own posters and videos, write letters to politicians and newspapers, and work with friends and family members to make a difference. It’s impossible to know if such efforts will help solve the problems they address, but turning the nightmares of children into positive thought and action is far better than leaving them in the dark.


Paul Lewis is the author of “A Is for Asteroids, Z Is for Zombies: A Bedtime Book about the Coming Apocalypse.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.