Someday a child might come to you and say that they are sad or scared about what is happening in the world. What do you do then?
During my son’s third grade camping trip, I stood on the side of a stream, talking to a friend while my 8-year-old played, or so I thought, by the water.
The conversation began with ordinary talk about summer plans.
She was planning a trip to see her husband’s family who, she said, seemed to have done everything possible for their children but, still, their daughters were decidedly not all right. They were cutting off from friends, cutting out of school, and the oldest was going so far as cutting herself.
We tried to make sense of how bad things happen in good families and quickly agreed that parenting is a wild and uncertain ride these days.
Even if you do everything you can to deliver on the things most people agree are important — providing kids with loving time and attention, a relatively stable home life, a good education—there are so many outside influences on children now, especially teens who are exposed to stressors from the pressure of getting into college to learning to navigate an increasingly uncertain world.
And then, there are the crazy big things, like climate change, that feel so completely beyond our control, yet at some level still make many parents and their kids anxious.
Just then, from upstream, I heard someone call, “Is that Julian?”
I looked across the water, up the cliff, and saw my child nearly at the top. He had climbed the rock face, up 50 or 60 feet high, while I, completely oblivious to what was taking in place in front of me, had talked about far more amorphous threats children face and why we need to have conversations with them about them.
Thankfully, a parent who was nearest my son quickly traversed over to him and, together, they climbed safely down, Julian never having seen any danger at all — and me more than a little humbled about what we parents can do to keep our children safe.
It’s been three years since then — and I’ve spent a good deal of that time wringing my hands about the question of how, as a parent, I can responsibly respond to something like climate change, which has worried me ever since I had children.
For a time, out of fear, I tried to inspire other people to join my bandwagon. More recently, I decided I was better off thinking about how to help children meet this coming challenge by teaching them the value of resilience, adaptability, companionship, and a spiritual life.
But much of this time, I must admit, I have wasted in a paralyzing state of overwhelm.
Recently, I confided this to John Tarrant, a Zen Buddhist teacher based in Santa Rosa, California. I said my worries about how the potential for climate change would affect my children and others — and my seeming inability to do anything of real consequence about it — felt immobilizing and, ultimately, of no use.
None of us can bear the burden of something like global warming, he said, and we shouldn’t try. It’s too big — too far beyond human scale.
But someday, he continued, a child might come to you and say that they are sad or scared about what is happening in the world, and you might say, “I understand. Here, have a cup of tea.” And that will be what you have to do.
There was a time when I would not have understood the wisdom in those simple words, but I do now. I still firmly believe we all have a moral obligation to help make the changes needed to address climate change. And I know that there is much I can do to help prepare my kids for the new realities that are likely to come their way.
But on an ordinary human scale, being truly present for the child in front of me may be the very best thing I can ever do.
A slightly revised version of this piece originally appeared on FinerMinds.