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Do Kids Worry About the Environment?

PULLMAN, Wash. — Do children worry about the fate of endangered animals or other environmental issues?

Yes, but not as much as some people think they do, according to a study conducted by Amy Malkus, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University.

Malkus studied a group of 138 first, third and fifth graders in Lafayette, Ind., while working on her doctorate at Purdue. Her major professor was Lynn Musser, now with American University and the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation in Washington, D. C.

Concerns about something bad happening to their families, violence and crime were the greatest worries expressed by children in all three grades, Malkus said.

First graders also ranked concerns about smoking and drugs high on their lists. Third graders were worried about family members getting sick, and death and dying; while fifth graders ranked worries about personal injury, and death and dying near the top.

The highest environmental concern — worry about clean air and water — ranked fifth in a list of 10 childhood worries developed from personal interviews and extensive questionnaires.

“Before I did this research,” Malkus said, “I started reading things in the paper that sort of gave it a different spin: that children are really depressed about the environment; that children are overwhelmed by environmental problems.

“These statements did not agree with what I had seen in my own research, which is that thinking about the environment and wanting to do things about the environment could really energize kids and make them feel they were making a difference.”

In earlier research with third, fourth and fifth graders, third graders came out as the most pro-environmental. In her 1994 study, Malkus found that first graders worried more about the environment than third and fifth graders, although considerable variation occurred among children within each grade.

“When you are a first grader, it all seems so clear and right to you,” Malkus said. “it’s very easy for first graders to say yes, we always have to do this. There is no middle ground. By the time they reach fifth grade, they realize the world is not as black and white as they originally thought. They are becoming more like adults in that they realize environmental issues are very complex.”

The biggest source of environmental information was television, Malkus said. Ninety-four percent of the children questioned about their sources of environmental information mentioned television. The Discovery Channel and Nickelodeon were mentioned specifically.

Schools were mentioned by about 74 percent; books and magazines, by 76 percent and parents by 53 percent of the kids. “I would ask, do your parents ever talk about the environment,” Malkus said. “The kids would answer yes, but then hesitate and say ‘a little bit.'”

She said her previous study found no connection between the environmental attitudes of parents and their children. The fact that parents rarely talk about the environment with their kids might explain this.

“It’s kind of disturbing to think that kids start off really concerned about the environment and four years later in fifth grade, they’re still pretty concerned but not at the same level,” Malkus said.

“I think about the environment as a habit that we need to get ourselves into like brushing teeth. It shouldn’t be a question of whether we recycle or not, recycling should be a habit. If we start our children real early when they have an interest in the environment, they may keep the habit even after environmental issues are not as important in their lives.”

Malkus will report results of her work at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Saturday, April 5, in Washington, D.C.

(Reporters: You can reach Dr. Malkus in Pullman at (509) 335-0488. Dr. Musser can be reached in Washington, D.C., at (202) 628-8200, extension 23.)

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