Two weeks ago, a fourth grader and I sat down to read a book about the Tyrannosaurus Rex. We got to the part of the book where the T-Rexes were dying out.
“They all died at once, right?” he said.
“No,” I said, pointing to the sentence we had just read. “They died out over millions of years.”
“But how could that happen?” he said.
And so we talked about the idea of a population spreading so far out that individual dinosaurs couldn’t find enough mates, and therefore have babies. It was an abstract concept for a fourth grader. After all, he already knew what happened next for the dinosaurs. So we talked about the same situation with humans instead — as in, what if some catastrophe happened and humans started dying out slowly, and couldn’t find another person to have a baby with? Could he see then how a population could die out?
We paused. I could practically see the wheels in the boy’s head turning. He was processing the information that something as huge as a t-rex, a hundred t-rexes, could just die — just because, with no apparent reason. He made that extraordinary leap that kids do sometimes, and applied it to humans. He was envisioning all the humans dying out too.
I grew a little scared — mostly because I knew this was a possibility in the future, and I didn’t want to scare him. But also because I didn’t know if it was in my purview to talk to him about global warming and dinosaurs and death. I waited to see what he would say.
And then, bless his beautiful, childlike heart, he said, “But who would take care of the Earth if humans weren’t around? The dinosaurs took care of the Earth when they were alive, and then they died and now humans take care of it.”
Reader, I almost cried. In the moment before I corrected this idea, I had a hundred thoughts: I wished this was true, that humans actually did take care of the Earth. I thought about telling him that humans were, in fact, destroying the Earth with our boats and trucks and oil drilling and plastics. I thought about telling him that Planet Earth would probably be much happier without humans mucking everything up.
I also envisioned explaining the truth to him, that we could do something to change all of this, and that it was going to be hard work but together we could do it. And then, in one glorious instant, I realized that what I was teaching him at that very moment would probably shape his entire future. That if he learned about global warming now, he could become a lifelong environmental activist. I could teach him.
I told him, “If all the humans died too, the Earth would take care of itself.”
He said, “But the plants need things that are alive to take care of them.”
And I responded, “The plants take care of each other. Plants are alive too — not in the way that humans are alive. They don’t move, they don’t walk. But they’re alive, and they support each other.”
He accepted that answer without further questions, and read on.
I’m not sure if I dodged a bullet there, or missed a golden opportunity. What do you think? Have you ever tried to talk to kids about global warming?