This morning, as I backed my car up to pull out of our driveway, my cellphone rang with a call from my husband. Our 2.5 year-old daughter was in tears just inside the house. She had, unbeknownst to either of us, been making me a Valentine with a plan to give it to me before I left for work. I had kissed her goodbye, not knowing exactly what she was doing and she hadn’t realized I was walking out the door and was now in tears, finished Valentine in-hand.
My daughter never cries these days when I leave. For me, it was a no-brainer to put the car in park and dash back to our front door. Face against the glass, my daughter stood with a red paper heart clutched in her little hands. I opened the door and she pressed the heart towards me. She had glued smaller hearts across the surface, wrinkled and piled, and her effort was clear. Tears gone, she beamed up at my face with anticipation and delight. I exclaimed gratitude and love. She started to trot back into the house and then turned around.
“Momma, I was upset, because I wanted to give that to you before you left.” I crouched down. “I am so glad that you did. I am going to carry this with me all day.” She walked right up to me and put her little nose against mine. Big eyes looked straight into my own. “I love you so much,” I said. “I love you!” And then her pajama-clad, soft little body was gone.
I got into my car and drove away, hooking a recent Fresh Air interview into the speakers. The interview was with James Balog, an environmental photographer who most recently created the powerful film The Human Element. The film vividly explores both the already-existing and future impacts of climate change on humans. I listened to Balog talk about a special school in a hospital in Colorado established for children with extreme asthma, induced by poor local air quality. Balog estimated that nearly 100 children attend the in-hospital school. These children can rarely play outside. As I listened, my unborn son kicked steadily against the side of my uterus.
I spent part of my workday reading more stories about the current impacts of climate change on young people: impacts ranging from loss of homes or parents in extreme weather events to severe anxiety to massive food insecurity. The most vulnerable are just that: most vulnerable. I thought about my two children, one who is already running around, breathing in, and loving the world and the other who has yet to see his first tree, hear his first loon call at night or identify the feeling of fear by name.
We are so fortunate. The air around our home is not extremely contaminated – yet. Water is not lapping at our front door – yet. We have not had to pack up our children and our possessions and embark on life-threatening travel to a new home – (here, it is especially terrifying to add “yet”). We have food and clean water. Our children can breathe and explore and learn to love the world free of extreme fear – for now.
I spend a great deal of my time these days researching, thinking and writing about how to best prepare young people for a world with climate change. I find myself increasingly supportive of introducing the topic younger than many might imagine – although certainly in very simple terms at first. I think a lot about how to balance truth with encouragement. Joy and play are essential. I do not want my children robbed of their childhood, pushed to grow up too quickly by the looming presence of climate change. But I also want them to incorporate the reality that is climate change into their worldview. I want them empowered to apply their joy, their play and their best loving, creative selves to the challenges ahead. I want them to know that bravery is not the absence of fear and that empathy is possible across vast differences, be those differences based in ideology or species.
When I get home today, I will wrap my daughter into my arms, perhaps with a little extra vigor. I will not tell her about the children with asthma or the ones who have lost their homes. For now, I will affirm her creativity and kindness. I will help her learn to value feelings, hers and others’, to name them and allow their presence while also learning how to transform them into action. I will walk with her out in the world and together we will soak up the interconnection of living beings and learn as much as we can about the delicate but powerful ecosystems that sustain us all. We will learn respect and empathy. We will recognize our agency and ability to create solutions to problems. We will read stories about heroes. We will learn how to listen to others and appreciate their feelings and values. We will separate our wants from our needs. And I will continue to leave her to go to work, to face the harsher realities, both so that I may make my contribution and so she may learn about courage and the value of community beyond her parents.
This is where we begin. Together, we will stitch the fabric of the blanket that will one day provide comfort, support and nourishment as she learns the facts about climate change.
Valentine’s Day, we have told her, is about saying “I love you” and showing the care that accompanies that emotion, something we hope to celebrate every day.
Together, I hope we become a Valentine to the world.