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
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.
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.