Big Little Lies is, as its title suggests, a moral sinkhole. To watch it means to gently jumble your own ethical compass; after bingeing a few episodes last week, I couldn’t remember if it was, in fact, poor form to push a bad man down some stairs, or why exactly insider trading was frowned upon. Sometimes, basking in the Big Little Lies afterglow, I even fantasize about telling off my mother-in-law Meryl Streep — truly the greatest offense of all.
Let me be clear: I love this show and would throw myself down a flight of stairs on its behalf. I don’t know why it would ask me to, but the point is, I would. But in an attempt to avoid accidentally going to jail or alienating loved ones because of it, I wanted to clarify a few things for myself from a morality perspective after this week’s episode, the central conflict of which revolves around how to talk to kids about climate change without absolutely destroying them.
After Amabella’s teacher leads her and her classmates in a The Wall–esque exercise of repeating statistics about climate change (“How many gallons of water does it take to make a single sausage?” “A thousand.” “That’s right, and how many showers does that add up to?” “Fifty.”), Amabella passes out in a closet, shoes akimbo. A few scenes later, a child psychiatrist dressed as Little Bo Peep informs Renata and her husband that Amabella is “worried about the end of the planet. Her class is evidently talking about climate change and she’s gotten the message that we’re doomed.” Renata, furious, storms into the principal’s office and demands to know why these “idiots” would “teach 8-year-olds that the planet is doomed.” The principal calmly explains to Renata that because “the children are constantly bombarded with climate change, it’s our job to deconstruct it, so they can process it.”
“Good for you,” Renata spits back. “You deconstructed my little girl right into a coma.” Before she leaves, she adds, quite poetically, “I will be rich again. I will rise up. I will buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school. Then I’ll squish you like the bug that you are — pretends like he’s not a smoker, hasn’t been laid in 15 fucking years!!!” (Her recollection of the event, to Madeline, is a gorgeous Laura Dern classic: “Yeah, he’s a shit. They practically kill my daughter, then he’s just dismissing me like that? What a pussfuck.”)
Later in the episode, the school holds an assembly for the enraged parents, where the grievously downtrodden principal explains that “anxiety is an epidemic in our schools” and half-heartedly asks for feedback on the climate-change issue. Madeline, disoriented by her own medium-size lies to her husband, ends up on the assembly stage, ranting half-coherently about how to talk to kids about difficult subjects. “Our kids are afraid. They’re afraid to go to school; they’re afraid they’re gonna get shot. We don’t prepare them,” she weeps. “We fill their heads full of happy endings and happy stories and lies. We have to tell the children that life is an illusion and things don’t work out sometimes. You can’t tell them part of the truth. You have to tell the whole truth.”
As a person with zero children, I needed to know: Who’s right? Is it Madeline and the Establishment, or Laura Dern and her extremely, perfectly long neck? Should we lie to kids and say everything will be fine, or is that irresponsible? Is there an acceptable way to let them know the world is slowly melting? And if the child is named Amabella, does that change anything? So I reached out to a child psychologist, Lisa Dubinsky of New York City, as well as a former grade-school teacher from Marin County, California, a wealthy school district not unlike Big Little Lies’ Monterey. (The grade-school teacher, who taught young kids for two decades, politely asked not to be identified further because “I know I’ll hear about this.”)
Before we could even begin our climate-change conversation, Dubinsky wanted to point out her disappointment with previous events on the show. She immediately brought up a scene from the first season, wherein a teacher forces Amabella to identify the student who’s been biting her in front of a large crowd of students and parents. “No teacher would do that,” said Dubinsky. “That was unrealistic.” So it didn’t surprise me to hear that she was equally disappointed with the school administration’s approach to climate-change education.
“That’s too much for that age. And the idea of repetition? It’s like a religious service,” said Dubinsky. “It’s not good to lie to kids, ever. But you don’t have to inundate them with gruesome facts either. Because really, what are they going to do with it, other than feel anxiety and have nightmares? It’s about thinking about the kids’ cognitive level. What can kids really understand at this age, and what are they emotionally ready to hear?”
In the case of Amabella’s second-grade class, Dubinsky suggested that the teacher begin the conversation by figuring out what the kids already know about climate change, correcting any mistakes or misunderstandings, and then framing it as something they can immediately cope with. “You should ask things like, ‘What can we do to be helpful?’ So, for a first- or second-grader: recycling, trying to not use too much plastic, not littering, really simple things like that. I wouldn’t get into, like, ‘Take shorter showers,’ because that’s something that parents should be cognizant of, not a child.”
Dubinsky added that it was particularly bad form not to inform the parents about the potentially anxiety-inducing curriculum. “If you’re going to talk about anything controversial, it’s always good to let parents know ahead of time. If you can’t meet with them, you could do an email saying, ‘Hey, we’re about to launch into this topic, and here’s what we’re thinking. We appreciate any feedback. Maybe you could let us know what you think your child already knows, or what you’re talking about at home.’”
“There’s no harm in underdoing it,” she added. “You can always add information, but you can’t take information away once you’ve talked about it.”
The Marin County schoolteacher echoed Dubinsky’s sentiments, referring specifically to her own experience with what she referred to as “very wealthy, mostly white, mostly entitled children and their parents.” “I wouldn’t go into the whole catastrophe of climate change,” she said. “I would probably go into it as how the students could help with global warming. You don’t need to talk about the polar ice caps melting. I would never recite statistics. No. 1, it freaks them out, and No. 2, they’re probably not listening.”
I asked the schoolteacher if she’d ever dealt with Renata-esque helicopter parents. “I’d get horrendous, very hateful emails. Very long, and very hurtful, and people don’t read them before they send them, so it’s craziness. I got them whenever I did anything slightly off,” she said. “One year [in class], we talked about the sun, and how the sun, in millions of years, will extinguish, and then life on Earth will be gone. And I told them, ‘We’re talking millions of years. You will not be around. I will not be around. Nobody will be around that you know. This is way in the future. It’s not something for you to worry about.’ Well, I got emails on that. Emails like, ‘My child was very upset, couldn’t sleep at night, was worried about the sun.’ I would always email, ‘Thank you for your input. I appreciate what you had to tell me. I hope so-and-so is doing better. I hope to see him tomorrow in school.’”
The schoolteacher also received emails with unwarranted advice about her personal life. “I’d get suggestions like, ‘You should have more crystals in your classroom,’ or, ‘You should have your teaching aura adjusted,’” she laughed.
I asked if she ever changed her curriculum or her aura based on those emails. “Oh, no,” she said. “No, absolutely not. No.”
As for Monterey’s self-declared “epidemic of anxiety,” both women agreed that kids’ stress levels had ratcheted up considerably in the years since they’d begun practicing. “It’s not a very calming world they live in,” said the schoolteacher. “They’re anxious about a lot of things they have no control over. They get exposed to too much media, I think. And that makes them worried. Just watching the news is bad. They should never be watching the news.”
Dubinsky said her patients display a combination of stress about climate change and the world at large, as well as anger at the generation that created these problems. “Older kids will ask, ‘Is there even gonna be enough food? Is there going to be a scorched earth by the time I’m 25?’” she said. “My gut feeling is that there’s a lot more anxiety these days. Part of it, too, is that kids are overbooked. They’re busy four afternoons a week after school. The parents are very keen on the kids achieving, and that I think can cause anxiety. Anxious parents will produce anxious kids.” (A good tip for Renata “I’d Like My Daughter Transferred to Stanford Because It’s Stanford, I Mean, Please” Klein.)
But both also caution against lying (of any size) to kids to assuage that anxiety. “Most children have a sense that you’re lying, and then they think, If my parents are lying, the truth must be really bad. It must be so awful that they can’t tell me, and then their fantasies run wild,” said Dubinsky, who referred to Madeline’s rant as a “hysterical response” but “understandable.” The schoolteacher added, “What you share about the truth should be appropriate to what the kid can understand, and comprehend. You shouldn’t lie, but you also don’t need to tell them every single detail.”
Before hanging up, I asked Dubinsky if she’d ever dressed up in Little Bo Peep drag to get through to a young patient. “I’ve never heard of anything like that. Dressing up is totally inappropriate, and most kids would find it weird,” she said. “That’s … bizarre. That’s totally bizarre.”