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Climate Café makes space for parents to talk about raising kids in a warming world

View south of Franconia Notch, from Cannon Mountain.
Dan Tuohy
View south of Franconia Notch, from Cannon Mountain.

For Maria Finnegan, having a child made the reality of climate change feel heavy in a way it hadn’t before.

She moved back to New Hampshire so she could share her childhood memories of snowy winters in the woods with her son. But as the atmosphere warms, and winter rain becomes more common, that’s becoming more complicated.

“When it does snow, I think, is this the last time? Is my son going to be able to experience snow in 10 years? And that just drags on me,” she said. “You add all that up with daily parenting and it's just a lot.”

Finnegan, who works for the New Hampshire Childrens’ Trust, said she shifted her whole life to focusing on climate change when she became a parent.

On Saturday, she gathered with small groups of other parents at the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vermont, to facilitate conversations about raising kids in a warming climate.

Children played in the museum under the supervision of other adults, while their parents gathered in a bright room around a makeshift circle of tables.

“Nobody's really tapping in on what the parents are feeling and how they're doing,” Finnegan said. “This is an opportunity to collect parents together, with child care, to kind of take a load off and really express things that have been on their mind with a looming threat that they are seeing daily now.”

The conversations, known as climate cafés, are meant to provide places where people can talk about their thoughts and emotions about climate change, without feeling a pressure to act, said Elizabeth Bechard, another facilitator of the event.

Bechard is a senior policy analyst with Moms Clean Air Force, and coaches parents and future parents who are worried about climate change. She said many feel pressure to talk with their children about climate change in developmentally appropriate ways.

But, she said, for a high percentage of parents, their own emotional distress about climate change – anger, grief, guilt, fear, or a range of other feelings – gets in the way.

“I really believe that offering parents the opportunity to process their own emotions about climate change is actually a critical, maybe even a first step to these conversations,” she said.

Saturday’s climate cafés covered a breadth of issues – from the outdoor spaces parents wanted to share with their kids that are changing fast, to the consumer choices parents must make every day to balance convenience and environmental sustainability.

The task parents face in the changing climate is massive, Bechard said: helping kids cope with the world, and with the disruption that climate change is causing. And many are burned out by the pandemic and other responsibilities. She sees spaces like climate cafés as one way to build resilience.

“It's going to be really hard for parents to show up the way that they want to for their kids – to be the warm, nurturing, responsive caregivers that children need to cope with climate threats, whether it's the next hurricane, the next wildfire, the next flood, or even just that sense of anxiety and dread,” she said. “Kids really need parents who can help them cultivate emotional resilience and learn to be adaptive. In order to do that, parents need to have support themselves.”

For Jenn Alford-Teaster, a parent from Sutton, climate change has been on her mind for years. She’s a public health scientist who thinks a lot about the impacts of more heat, wildfire smoke, and other climate hazards. She and her husband both studied environmental science.

“We've been aware of these things and sort of tend to think of them as something we need to adapt to and develop resilience for,” she said. “Having a child, for us, was an act of hope.”

Alford-Teaster said the climate café was a useful place to have open conversations about climate change. For her, it’s important to avoid feelings of helplessness. And she hopes her daughter understands she can play a role in addressing climate change.

“That’s part of the joy of living, being a part of the problem-solving, and being part of recovery and change,” she said. “So eventually, hopefully, maybe she feels a sense of pride in that.”

The advocacy group New Hampshire Healthcare Workers for Climate Action helped organize the climate cafés, and said they were planning to host more events across the state.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.

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