My Son Questioned Whether His Future Was Worth Living For, And It Broke My Heart

by Heather Lynne Sparks
Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

“Mom, I think I want to die,” my 10-year-old said matter-of-factly on our drive to soccer practice.

If this had been any other kid but my eldest, I’d have probably pulled the car right over. But this is Carter we’re talking about. So, without even turning down the volume on his carefully curated playlist, I switched on Cool, Levelheaded Mom mode. “Hmmm. Why’s that?”

“I just don’t want to have to deal with the world exploding.”

I asked him to “tell me more about that” (like my parenting podcast advised me). This was followed by a thorough, if not entirely accurate, description of global warming in the words of a decade-old human staring down his future.

In his ensuing word vomit, Carter mentioned melting ice caps, heat waves, floods, droughts, and, of course, cow farts.

Phew, I thought. This isn’t about suicide. Just the global apocalypse.

Bit of backstory here: Carter exists in a pretty cushy bubble consisting of a two-story house in the ‘burbs, a dad that works in tech, a mom who used to teach, three pesky younger siblings who idolize him, and a lot of Disney movies. His most frequent complaints include sharing a room with his brother, trumpet practice, and squash of any kind.

Most days, Carter’s got big plans for the future. He’s told me that if he gets married, he might want two kids. He also wants to live in a penthouse in Manhattan with his favorite cousin, own a pet fox, and have a professional career as a WWE superstar.

I love that journey for him.

However, for at least fifteen minutes last Monday, he questioned whether his future was worth sticking around for. And it broke my heart.

Parents, as a rule, are used to carrying on as normal with broken hearts. I’ve been at this gig for a solid decade, and this wasn’t my first rodeo. So I checked my emotional tornado into its docking station, made sure the reflection in the rearview mirror was that of Levelheaded Mom, and kept my tone casual. I chatted with Carter about what global warming could look like when he’s an adult.

If nothing changes, I explained, humans will continue to raise the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — gases that trap heat — in our atmosphere. The average temperatures will continue to increase by what a lot of people would consider “just a little bit.” However, just a little bit can cause huge changes. This will continue to affect everyone’s daily life in a lot of ways.

Uncle T, our family firefighter, will have to keep leaving for weeks or months to fight more and more wildfires.

Climate change makes things warmer and wetter, which will breed more mosquitos and other bugs that carry diseases. You remember all your mosquito bites last week? Remember how Aunt Mimi had West Nile virus and her neck was all swollen?

Because of the seasonal changes, pollen season would keep making his allergies worse. Your cousin Miles will have an even higher risk of having asthma attacks.

In a lot of places, there will be less snow and rainfall, which will reduce water supplies. There will be more frequent and intense heat waves — which will cause deaths and make people sick.

The oceans will hold onto more heat; this will provide energy for bigger storms. The sea level will keep rising, and that means flooding. Flooding closes roads, damages buildings, and can make water unsafe to drink. This will be tricky for Americans, because almost half of Americans live near the coast.

As we pull into the parking lot, I’m saying, “Most of these changes will hurt people more if they are poor, sick, or old. Also, people like Uncle Danny, who work outside a lot, will be in more danger.”

The more I go on boiling down climate change, the harder it is not to break character. The world is literally falling apart; keep it casual, Mom.

I turn around to face my oldest, who’s strapping on his shinguards.

I tell him: No matter how hard your life is, and all lives are hard, it’s worth living. You only get to do it once, Carter. There’s a lot of joy mixed in with all of the bad and the stuff that doesn’t make sense, I say.

He nods, but then shrugs before grabbing his ball and darting toward his team. “Yeah,” he calls over his shoulder. “But grown ups pretty much ripped us off.”

I know, kid. I know. Raising you is heavier on my shoulders knowing what I’ve brought you into.

My kids — and your kids, too — are being raised on Disney mottos. “Just keep swimming,” says Dory. “Do the next right thing,” says Anna.

While both of these are crucial pieces of life advice, what exactly are we expecting our kids to keep swimming through? And how come generations of adults have kept doing quite the opposite of the next right thing?

Globally, young people continue to urge action when it comes to making their futures less abysmal.

This September, 400 activists travelled to Milan to collaborate at the Youth4Climate meeting. There, they drafted a document of recommendations for the 26th Climate Change Conference of the Parties to consider. The conference will be held in Glasgow this October.

The voices at the youth convention represented 180 countries, and yet the sinking feeling that the solutions they came up with will not be welcomed at the U.N. climate talks was clearly acknowledged. Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate lamented, “If leaders and governments are going to talk about net zeroes or cutting emissions, halving emissions by 2030 or 2040 or 2050, that means it has to start now.” Nakate, who holds a degree in business administration, told the Associated Press, “It doesn’t mean, if we are going to do it by 2030, between now and 2030 let’s open a coal power plant, you know, let’s frack some gas, or let us construct an oil pipeline. That is not the real climate action that we want.”

I mean, the work is pretty straightforward for a complicated topic. That doesn’t mean the next steps are easy — but they are the right things to do.

To go for the obvious pun, my 10-year-old isn’t asking for the moon. Just the Earth.

And to restate the obvious: Grownups, stop ripping off kids.

To learn more about climate change and what needs to be done, visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency.