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My Kid Is Freaking Out About The Future—And So Am I

When “everything is going to be okay” doesn’t cut it for either of us

A few months ago, while scrubbing my kitchen with Method soap and a natural sponge, I mentioned to my 7-year-old that I’d read an article predicting that the North Pole’s summer ice cover would melt through in the next year or so. It was an offhand comment, granted the same weight as any other tidbit of daily news: The North Pole is about to be unrecognizable. Your future is precarious. Oh, and we’re having tacos tonight. My son’s defining quality is that he cares a hell of a lot about pretty much everything. He put up his hands, drew a deep breath, and said: “Mom, when I’m president”—long exhale—“what are we going to do? There’s just too much to fix.”

This was before the election, the morning after which he stormed into my room to complain that I hadn’t woken him up to celebrate Hillary’s victory. After he found out that the man who called climate change a hoax had won, he hid his face in a pillow and sobbed; I cried too. For years, this kid has bemoaned environmental waste: litter, lights left on in unused rooms, neighbors’ sprinklers flowing onto sidewalks. I’ve found him awake in bed more than once, stressed out about global warming. It doesn’t help that my cell phone emits a warning squawk for weather emergencies, usually floods in the valley near our home. He’s taken to pacing whenever it goes off, telling me he’s scared. “We’re safe where we are,” I always say, though it’s clear he doesn’t believe me.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]The North Pole is about to be unrecognizable. Your future is precarious. Oh, and we’re having tacos tonight. [/quote]

I remember my own nights awake as a kid, when I was dismayed about the hole in the ozone layer. It wasn’t exactly a boogeyman in my nightmares, but it made me furious at do-nothing adults. When I learned about the evils of aerosol sprays, I shouted about them around the house until my family stopped buying them. Incredulous over our school cafeteria’s use of Styrofoam trays, which not only can’t be recycled but emit dangerous chemicals, my friends and I convinced our parents to pack our lunches.

I told my son about my childhood victories, boasting about how my generation changed the habits of the adults in our lives and fixed that ozone hole. (Yep. I give kids credit for the Montreal Protocol, which limited CFCs.) I even gave him a bunch of green-minded tasks from my favorite mommy blog, ones that “kids can do too.” He just rolled his eyes. To him, this was busy work; a distraction. He shook his head and walked away.

In the late ’80s, caring about the earth was a manageable task: Don’t use hairspray and buy a lunch box with a picture from your favorite cartoon. But for my son, climate change is a very real, looming crisis, and he’s well aware that quick fixes won’t stop it. He’s smart enough to recognize something about me that I couldn’t: My rush to tamp down his concern is more about absolving my own guilt and burying my own eco-fears. I like to tell myself that I’m a decent environmental role model, but this is a trick picked up from my parents—adopting the bare minimum of eco-habits lets me believe I’m off the hook for the bigger, scarier stuff.

Yet it’s becoming abundantly clear that my approach simply doesn’t work anymore—not with the North Pole up against a ticking clock. The last time I picked him up from school, he complained dramatically about the other parents who left their cars running for 10 minutes at a clip. “All those emissions!” he said with a sigh. I couldn’t help but try to appease him, and though I cringe now to think of it, I told him everything would be ok—he just needed to start a petition to try and get a “no idling” sign put up. He gave me a look that said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not going to be okay.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]My 7-year-old still assumes he’s going to be president. He knows this is his responsibility to bear.[/quote]

He’s right. It might not be. And since I don’t have the answers, I’m starting to think it would be better to leave him be and let him stew; to trust him to mentally sort out these uncomfortable realities for himself. It’s completely reasonable to have anxiety about a problem so huge even grown-ups can’t find the mental fortitude to consider it for long. My prescription for his concerns shouldn’t be “I love you” or “don’t worry” or even “here’s how kids in my generation would have done it.”

Instead, I should ask, “How can you fix it?” and see what he says, allowing him to express disgust and moral outrage, treating those emotions as fuel for whatever solutions his big, creative, compassionate mind can dream up. My 7-year-old still assumes he’s going to be president. He knows this is his responsibility to bear. I need to step out of his way.

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