Today my son “Jay” and I were at the park, running from swing set to slide to merry-go-round, our usual routine, when a city park employee truck pulled in. The man in the truck said hello to Jay, we greeted him back. He proceeded to pick up and dispose of garbage laying around the park with those cool giant tongs and a bucket in hand. Since one of my son’s greatest obsessions in life is garbage (“gaba” was one of his first words), I pointed at the man in the distance and narrated the man’s activity for Jay: “Yes, the man is picking up garbage that he will throw away.” Jay, of course, got excited. He began picking up garbage himself and yelling about it enthusiastically.
At first I said, “fuj”, the Czech word for yuck, trying to deter him from touching the trash, but then I realized that the gum wrapper he picked up off the grass was probably no more germ-ridden than the rock or stick he had just played with. It occurred to me that it may be confusing to insist he not pick up and throw away a piece of paper in the park, but to expect him to participate in cleaning up at home. Also, it felt funny to be telling my son not to help the Latino man cleaning up the park in which we, the two white people, were the only visitors leisurely taking in the sunshine. My 18-month-old son doesn’t yet make the distinctions between our garbage and someone else’s garbage; my job, your job, or his job… The two voices inside me debated: Do I suspend the rules that we don’t ever touch trash outside the house? Do I indulge my son just this time and sacrifice a little bit of my germ phobia for his s sense of satisfaction from cooperation and a job well-done?
Instead of squashing his joy and sending a message I did not want to send - that we must squelch our desire to help, or that we are too good to pick up trash, or that garbage is for “the brown people” to deal with - I decided to just go with the flow. Why not encourage Jay in helping the man? It really is a lovely thing that he wants so badly to be useful. We’ll resume with our germ theory lessons next time (idea as I write this: maybe with two sticks as our make-shift tongs), I thought. So, I said: “That’s right. Let’s help the man pick up the trash.”
Jay carried his gum wrapper all the way across the park and handed it to the man. “Thank you,” said the man as he threw the wrapper in his bucket. Mission accomplished. One wrapper and the toddler, with his one-minute attention span was on to the next thing.
Maybe I was way overanalyzing the situation, but what I know is that though my son is little now, he remembers a lot. And what I wanted him to remember at the end of the day was not sitting on the sidelines passively in disappointment or fear of yucky things, but the feeling of joy and satisfaction that comes with being helpful.