March 2006
Don’t Add to the Garbage

by Annie Fox, M.Ed

We want them to gain enough self-awareness to ask: ‘Am I really the kind of person who wants to add to the garbage by doing X? Or am I the kind of person who wants less garbage in my school? Less garbage amongst my friends? Within my family?’
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Up the street from our home lies Faudé Park with its 13.5 acres of open space preserve. This relatively undeveloped community treasure offers hikers, dog-walkers and naturalists the quiet and beauty of woods and hills. There are wonderful vistas of our valley. And the knock-out view of Mt. Tamalpais makes the trek more than worth the effort. When my husband and I first ventured up to Faudé’s highest point we were delighted. We were also depressed by the thick carpet of broken beer bottles tossed by high school students who liked partying in a “natural” environment. (A large trashcan sits 20 feet from the peak. But hey, the ground’s always much handier, right?)

As I confessed in January David and I aren’t neat freaks, but we hated seeing all that glass in such a beautiful setting so we started cleaning it up. That first day we spent about 30 minutes carefully picking up the biggest pieces and tossing them into the can.

Faude ParkWhen we came back a week later, new broken glass had replaced some of what we’d taken away. But we weren’t deterred. Over a period of several months, we kept picking up glass. At some point our efforts started paying off. Weekend party-goers stopped tossing bottles on the ground. Maybe it was because they now could actually see the ground. Maybe the place looked beautiful to them again, so it just wasn’t cool to mess it up. Whatever the reason, David and I celebrated the new consciousness. Interestingly, we’ve recently discovered that what we observed at the park is a bona fide sociological phenomenon with its own name! According to the Broken Window Theory, the more rundown a neighborhood becomes, the more likely people will break windows in its abandoned buildings, graffiti walls, and litter. The crime rate increases too. Conversely, when a neighborhood gets cleaned up, everything improves.

It’s now many years later and I’m pleased to report that as of my walk this morning, the Faudé Park overlook is still free of glass and Mt. Tam looks more spectacular than ever.

At my most recent student assemblies for middle and high school I’ve been discussing the concept of “adding to the garbage.” I ask the kids: “If you walked into a room littered with trash and you’ve got an empty soda can you want to get rid of, would it be okay to throw the can on the floor and add to the garbage?” Some kids invariably say, “Sure, it’s okay because everyone else is doing it and no one would notice.” Then I ask if it’s less okay to litter when the space is totally clean. Often the same kids who said littering is okay when there’s already garbage on the floor, say it’s not okay when things are clean. And we talk about the difference. But some kids say that it’s NEVER okay to add to the garbage. Which brings the discussion to the place I’ve got my sights on… the realm of “social and emotional garbage.” I point out that we’re not just talking about soda cans and candy wrappers. We’re also talking about the choices teens make in relation to themselves and the way they treat other people. We’re talking about how well they honor their body and their health, how they manage their emotions, what they choose to say when they’re angry or hurt, what they do when no one’s watching (that includes cheating on tests, going against their parents’ rules, posting hurtful things on websites, etc.).

...the #1 goal of effective parenting is the
development of ethical behavior.

Every school’s mission statement mentions moral integrity and social responsibility. But what are schools actually doing to teach these things to their students? What are we, as parents, doing to teach our kids these core values? We want them to think about the choices they make before they act on them. We want our children to become reflective, compassionate young women and men. We want them to gain enough self-awareness to ask: “Am I the kind of person who wants to add to the garbage by doing X? Or am I the kind of person who wants less garbage in my school? Less garbage amongst my friends? Within my family? If I really want less garbage, what can I do about that right now at this moment? Am I willing to stop a rumor? Speak out when I see someone being teased? Speak out against ethnic, homophobic, sexist “jokes” when I hear them? Involve an adult when a friend is endangering himself/herself or another? Apologize when I do or say something insensitive? Help someone in trouble? Reach out to someone who needs a friend?”

Aside from making sure that our kids grow up in good health, the way I see it, the #1 goal of effective parenting is the development of ethical behavior. If you want your child to develop into the kind of person whose actions reflect personal integrity and promote more friendship, peace, and justice in the world, what are you doing to insure that it happens?

Character development is an ongoing process for each of us. The best advice I can give to help you parent in the direction of higher ethical standards is for you to consistently work with your teen on these issues. Talk about ethical behavior. Model it in your own life. Help your son or daughter to evaluate choices and to learn from mistakes. There are no easy answers here, but one thing is for sure, we live in a world that desperately needs less garbage.

In friendship,
Annie

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