Talking With Kids About the Oil Spill

It’s hard to miss the disturbing sights of the Gulf Oil Spill. Everywhere you look—TV, newspapers, the internet—you see wildlife covered in oil. You hear about people who are concerned about fishing and tourism. And you hear about how it will take years to clean up this disaster.

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Kids everywhere are concerned. They want to help. And many are asking questions about what this means for the future of wildlife and people along the Gulf. How should you respond to questions? How can you help them not be scared or worried about the future? Here are some thoughts about how to talk with them about the spill.

In general, if kids ask about the spill, the message should be that it’s very sad that there was an accident. But that people from many different government agencies and organizations are working to stop the leak and clean up the Gulf. Young people should not have to take on the burden of this spill and worry about its impact. However, they can understand that accidents happen and that very skilled people are working hard to clean up the spill and stop the leak. They also should know that accidents like this help people realize how fragile our ecosystems are and that sometimes it can take a spill like this to realize how important it is to protect the environment. They can also know that everyone can do something to help protect the environment.

Younger Kids

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A turtle being cleaned

The oil spill can be very scary for both adults and kids. But adults have the ability to cope with disasters much better than young people. With younger kids (K-4), always try to reassure them. If they ask what will happen to the oiled birds and other wildlife, you should be honest and say that some will die – but that scientists and volunteers are working hard to protect as many birds and other creatures as possible. And that many people are working to clean up the oil. It’s also important to tell them that we are making progress, but that there’s more to do.

Younger kids do not need to know about the scope of the tragedy or be worried about the future for wildlife or people. They need to be reassured that adults will handle this.

Older Kids

Older kids will be asking more pointed questions. They have been asking Audubon what caused the spill and why people didn’t do more to prevent this. They’ve asked if this spill will kill the ocean and if it will rain oil across the country when a hurricane hits. They’ve also asked what they can do to help. It’s very helpful if you stay informed about what’s happening so that you can help your kids better understand the issues. You can visit this site to find out more about what happened to cause this and what people are doing to address the spill. And you can check out the Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, EPA, and other government agencies that are working hard to contain the spill and clean it up.

Some key themes to talk about with your older kids include:

  • How our energy use is connected to the spill in the Gulf and why it matters for Americans to reduce energy use and find safer ways to get the energy we need.
  • Oil is toxic to wildlife and people. Older kids can understand more about how oil can harm living things, poison seafood, and create problems for the food web.
  • Businesses, government, media, and citizens all have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again. The oil spill shows that everyone had a role in this spill. BP did not have a plan for a catastrophe like this, the government was not providing needed oversight and regulations, the media didn’t highlight the environmental risks related to deep sea oil drilling, and citizens were not as informed as they should have been.
  • Healthy ecosystems support healthy communities. So many people depend on the Gulf for fishing, tourism, food, and recreation. Young people can learn more about how people and wildlife both need a healthy ecosystem to survive.
  • Birds are great indicators of environmental health. One of the first indicators that the oil was impacting the coast was seeing the impact on birds.
  • Everyone can do something. Even if you don’t live in the Gulf, there are ways to help (see below).

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Dr. Frank Gill interim President of the National Audubon Society

In General

  • Be positive.
  • Serve as an optimistic, but concerned, role model.
  • Show concern, but not anxiety.
  • Tell the truth, but soften it for young people.
  • As a family, get involved in local ways to restore habitat, help birds and other wildlife, and reduce energy use.
  • Go on a hike. Helping young people learn more about your local habitat is important to their long-term concern for the environment. Getting outside and learning more about their own flora and fauna can not only help them be a life-long steward, but it can also provide family bonding time!