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Oil Disaster: Children Need the Straight Story -- How to Give It

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In the supermarket I overheard a father explain to his little girl: "There is a big spill in the ocean, and it's very, very bad for the fish." It was the kind of insufficient description many parents are giving, probably because the BP communications team has found methods to pleasantly describe the most complex ecological wrecking ball of the century.

British Petroleum, hoping that the impact of the tragedy fades along with our memories of it, hardly wants us to educate the next generation about the summer of unstoppable oil bubbling into the Gulf of Mexico. (Isn't that reason enough to turn immediately to the child sitting next to you and plant some memory in his or her malleable mind?)

I expect there will eventually be picture books, lesson plans and plenty of FernGully-esque animation to help explain the disaster to youth (I hope some enterprising art students are hard at work as I write this). But many of these educational tools tend to make light of what is shaping up to be a monumental calamity. We shouldn't shy from the truth when we talk to our children: We did this, it's terrible, species are destroyed, lives are ruined. Let's make sure it never happens again. A direct and honest approach to talking to your children is surely better than the snippets and sound-bites seeping into homes through the usual avenues of anxiety: newspapers, television and "adult conversations."

Given the array of emotions the catastrophe has created in adults, affected directly or watching in horror across the continent, it would be irresponsible to ignore the reactions of children as we parse through what went wrong, what to do and who to blame. It's not enough to tell them this is just a problem for the fish.

Below are a few thoughts for communicating a very complicated issue in kid-friendly ways. (For a sense of what age-appropriate conversations about the news sound like, see this PBS Parents age-by-age insights guide).

Encourage Questions

The National Mental Health Information Center guidelines on helping children cope with fear and anxiety recommend encouraging children to ask questions to assess how much information they already possess before volunteering new information about a tragic situation. When explaining the situation, provide reassurances for their specific fears, and help them develop their own thoughts on the subject. Think of each conversation as a "discussion starter," and expect no firm results. Try opening with something along the lines of, "Have you heard anything about the oil in the ocean, and do you want to ask me any questions about it?"

Be Aware of Your Words

While it may be wise to be sensitive to little ears, it is counterproductive to diminish the scope by parroting corporate PR. This is not an oil "spill" -- a word favored by BP strategists and misused in the media. This is not even a "leak." This is a spewing, relentless, geyser of oil erupting from a hole we put in the earth. This is a man-made calamity -- an example of negligence that President Barack Obama has called the "greatest environmental disaster of its kind in our history." A spill more adequately describes a glass of milk dropped on the parquet. Lest we collectively remember this event as an accident, avoid using terms that suggest it is.

Try an Experiment

For those who still like to feel things other than keyboards with their hands, give your children a bowl of water, pour in two tablespoons of cooking oil, hand them a piece of string, and ask them to cordon off the oil, leaving the water alone. Can it be done? How quickly? See if they have other ideas for household utensils that could efficiently remove the oil while leaving the water behind. I did this activity as an elementary schooler during a unit on oil spills, and have never forgotten it!

Alternatively, try this National Geographic lesson plan for third- through fifth-graders, Bird Baths, which allows children to cover themselves in chocolate syrup to simulate what it feels like to be covered in oil. Children then remove the oil (with great ease, as most of it has already been licked clean) and discuss the effect of oil disasters on bird populations.

Describe the Magnitude

Lucky for BP, it is difficult to visualize "350 million gallons of oil." Try not to let this abstraction come between you and the systematic training of the new generation of environmental activists. From my days as an after-school teacher, I found that comparisons help kids with visualization: 350 million gallons of oil is enough to fill 8 million bathtubs, or one bathtub for each person in New York City. BP has spewed enough oil into the Gulf of Mexico to fuel a space moped on a 1.6 billion-mile trip to Uranus, a trip that would take more than 6,000 years. Or better yet, counting to 350 million, if you counted once per second with no breaks, would take 11 years.

Teach Conservation

Bill McKibben recently wrote in the Daily Beast that the disaster's silver lining is our chance to galvanize the nation around climate change legislation, systematically invest in renewable energy, and aggressively pressure officials to champion regulatory reform. It's also an opportunity to engage our youth in action, teaching them about the connection between what happened in the gulf and driving big cars, leaving the lights on, or eating lettuce shipped from Argentina. Make use of the copious games and activities about conservation on the Internet. The EPA Web site has a few activities to help children learn about conservation, and the National Wildlife Federation website is run by a virtual raccoon named Ranger Rick who teaches kids how to live in the "green zone." Ranger Rick also outlines the gulf oil disaster for children in this online unit.

Get Some Perspective

One of the routine pleas of the environmental movement is "save the planet for our children." Wouldn't it be nice if we could get their help with that project? Start a thoughtful conversation with the kids in your life. Ask them what they think about the fact that miles of life-sustaining wetlands and marshes may soon be gone forever. Entire species of birds and turtles and fish are suffocating in oil so thick they can barely open their mouths to swallow . . . more oil. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs and hundreds have been injured trying to feed our oil habit.

Yet engorged companies continue to extract precious resources in dangerous ways at great cost to worker health and our planet -- with no end in sight. Business as usual? I doubt there are many children who are taking in the oil-soaked pelicans and crying fishermen while thinking, "Let's shorten the moratorium on off-shore drilling, shall we?"

Perhaps we could all benefit from a child's-eye view on the subject.
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Just wondering if anyone has read the rules and regulations in place for oil drilling. I haven't. Could it be that they were always there, and simply being ignored by DC, and all the people the taxpayers support who are supposed to ensure they are followed? It seems our State and Federal Legislators believe their only job is to write laws, not follow them, nor enforce them.

June 29 2010 at 9:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tell them the liberals got what they wanted.

The liberals wanted offshore drilling, now they have to answer for it.

June 15 2010 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

A GOOD article - and sadly too true. We need to continue work to replace oil with clean, renewable energy - and to accelerate our efforts, The gulf oil leak makes that clearer than ever.

And our children need to learn from the lessons we've given them about the harmful effects of oil, so our children don't repeat the same mistakes we've made.

June 12 2010 at 11:03 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

This is what those of us on the Gulf Coast have feared was going to happen - special interest kooks turning this into 'their' story. I mean, teach your kids about conservation, indeed. Teach them that greenie crazies insisted that oil wells be put waaaay offshore 'to prevent ecological damage', so when the inevitable accident happened (because, no matter what you do, accidents happen) it was almost impissible to fix. Teach them that we had learned that oil rigs provided infrastructure for invertebrate sea life, thus making parts of the ocean that had once been basically barren into vital ecologies. Teach them that there are some people so weird that they care more about animals (and there aren't any species dying, despite all the doom-saying) than the people, children like them, who have been living in tents since Katrina and will now probably not even be able to eat because Daddy lost his job on one of the closed rigs. Tell them the truth, without some kookie slant.

June 12 2010 at 10:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The answer is simple: BP lied, the government lied, and no one is listening to those who have potential solutions.

All of us living on the Gulf know these facts to include our kids.

June 12 2010 at 9:08 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Shall we discuss Valdez, the Alaskan spill and elaborate the effects of the Union Carbide accident in Bhopal and how people many died and were affected for life? How much fear and guilt does this leftist writer want instilled in the kids to change the world right now?

June 12 2010 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I already told my children, it was an accident, a real catastrophe, a disaster and a terrible accident with the actual TV showing of the disaster. It was bad enough to cause an explosion that killed 11 people, fish, birds other wildlife but far away from their shore not to cause immediate harm to them. Oil is a source of energy, a natural resource that has heated their homes in the past and will continue to be our main source of energy in their immediate future. This article suggests teaching kids anger, guilt and a left wing agenda. Until there is a better energy source, perfected to keep the world flowing we do not have to overburdened kids with conspiracy theories. If it wasn't an accident, what explanation does this writer suggest we provide that would not alarm the children?

June 12 2010 at 8:54 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

LOLOL!!!! gotta love this article...this is like in the schools where the little kids are traumatized by pictures of polar bears on the ice drifts because of a phenomenon by the name of man-made global warming which does not exist but was created in order to raise your taxes and limit your can the political bent of this article it's ALL important to explain to your kids what happened in the Gulf even though it will never affect their day-to-day life maybe someone should write an article about something REAL like trillions in deficit spending, the national debt, and trillions in unfunded liabilities that they are going to have to pay for...

June 12 2010 at 8:26 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Tell them the TRUTH....Corperate owns Government Officials who do not work in the best interest of American Citizens and they help them by turning there head the other way.A they will give them money so they can go a lie to the people and get votes so they can work fo the best interest of the Greedy Company's.

June 12 2010 at 8:05 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The last sentence of the article says it all. The author suggest we may need the insights of a child on this very serious and technical situation. Surely your kidding? Aren't you?

June 12 2010 at 7:09 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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