Middle Schoolers Have the Power to Shift Conservative Parents' Views on Climate Change

New research finds that, after middle schoolers completed a climate change curriculum, their parents became more concerned about the phenomenon.
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"High levels of parental trust in their children often leads to parents being willing to listen to or accept their child's views on complex topics."

Many American conservatives, including the president, still refuse to acknowledge the frightening reality of climate change. How can scientists convince them?

New research provides a close-to-home answer: by teaching their kids.

A new study reports that teaching middle school students about climate change greatly increased concern about the topic among their parents. This effect was far more pronounced for parents who identified themselves as politically conservative.

"Children are great educators," co-author Kathryn Stevenson of North Carolina State University said in announcing the findings. "They seem to help people critically consider ways in which being concerned about climate change may be in line with their values."

The study, described in the journal Nature Climate Change, was conducted in coastal North Carolina. It began with 238 middle school students and 292 of their parents taking a survey designed to measure their level of concern about climate change.

One hundred and sixty-six of the students were then taught a special climate change curriculum, which emphasized the effect of rising temperatures on local species. "We designed the curriculum to maximize the chance of child-to-parent [communication on the topic]," the researchers write.

Specifically, the kids participated in activities focusing on "the difference between weather and climate, how climate and weather relate to wildlife habitat, how wildlife managers can make use of adaptive management to deal with climate change, and how individual actions can impact the effect of climate change on wildlife."

Once it was completed, the kids and parents again completed the level-of-concern questionnaire. The researchers found worry about climate change had increased among parents in general, "but the shift was more pronounced in families where children were taught the curriculum," said lead author Danielle Lawson of North Carolina State University.

This elevated level of concern was "most pronounced for three groups: conservative parents, parents of daughters, and fathers," Lawson reports. On a 16-point scale (with minus eight being "not concerned at all" to plus eight being "extremely concerned"), the level of apprehension among self-described politically conservative parents increased a remarkable 4.77 points.

Looked at another way, the level of concern between liberal and conservative parents shrunk from 4.5 points to 1.2 points after their youngsters completed the curriculum.

The researchers attribute these results to "intergenerational learning," noting that adolescents who are introduced to climate change "are less influenced by socio-ideological factors than adults." In turn, learning about global warming from one's kids seems to skirt the mental roadblocks of ideological resistance.

"High levels of parental trust in their children often leads to parents being willing to listen to or accept their child's views on complex topics," the researchers conclude. "Children may provide a communication pathway that is resilient to longstanding socio-ideological barriers to learning about, caring about, and ultimately acting to address climate change."

And so they might. Remember, after painting a harmonious portrait of the natural world and its inhabitants, the Bible declares that "a little child shall lead them."

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