lessons from the trenches: stop wasting

I have very, very, very smart friends.

Lessons from the Trenches is a series of a few things that I have learned over the last few months from watching and listening to my mom friends in action.

"We only use what we need."

Friend: Olive
Friend's Kids: 2 boys, about the same age as Chicken and Buster
Friend's Parenting Vibe: Community-minded, calm, warm, thoughtful
Friend's Parenting Spirit Animal: Elephant

i just look at this pic and i think
all the way

(this is funny
because olive
super-taut knee skin
she's known for it
sometimes it's hard
for her to sit down)

Think about how many times a day you tell your kids to "stop wasting" something.
Energy. Water. Toilet paper. Crackers. Batteries. Baby wipes. Stamp ink. Time.

I say it forty times a day but I've never liked it. First, because that shit never fucking works.

I say: "Stop wasting X"
Chicken and Buster think:

"I should definitely waste more X, and also there's more stuff to turn on and let run forever that we haven't even thought of yet, like HOLY SHIT look at that! A box of expensive organic plantain chips! Let's DANCE ON THEM. And WOW! LOOK! A toilet! We should check to see how many times it will flush!"

Second, because "don't waste," is a very difficult thing to ask of young children who have not yet formed the ability to self-moderate and control impulses.

Most of the time when we say "don't waste," we're not saying "don't use," or "that's not for you." We're saying "yes, but then stop." We're saying, "water is good, but only the right amount." We're saying, "use a tissue, but NOT THAT MANY!" We're saying, "interact with this object, and then stop at the right time, and you'll know it's the right time because I'm going to yell at you to stop wasting it."

We go from a green light to a red light without a crosswalk countdown or a yellow. It must be so fucking confusing for kids. What was okay in a teaspoon is unacceptable in a scoop. What was fantastic for five minutes is BULLSHIT for six.

Fig 1.1

Seconds of Hand Washing
Child’s Behavior
Parent’s Response
Washing hands
Washing hands
Washing hands
Washing hands
Washing hands
Washing hands

Has there ever been a person in the history of the world who's used the right amount, the first time?

There's an invisible line between "appropriate usage" and "waste" that children are bound to cross by accident, and I don't like coming down on them with the assumption that they're evil geniuses trying to waste resources when, in reality, Chicken was just transported watching the tiny white bubbles on his fingers pop, silently, as the tap ran cold, perfect water down the sink.

Also, sometimes kids use stuff in a way that I wouldn't, and it's so easy to label their, um, innovations as wasteful. One time I bought a new box of crayons and Chicken immediately glued a dozen or so of the still-pointy, still pristine crayons together in a pile, and then smothered them in even more glue. When I saw it I said, "Oh! Wow. What... what's going on here, babe?" And he said, "I'm building a house of sticks, but I'm making it very strong so the wolf can't blow it down. It'll be safe now."

What if I'd said, "Oh no! You wasted those brand-new crayons!" I totally could have. I mean, dude. The new crayons? Come on!

But if I had, I would have crapped all over his house of sticks, his idea to build a strong, safe place, his young mind's early, lovely openness to question the necessity of accepting stories as they're written.

We got our money's worth out of those crayons, even if we never colored a damn thing with them.

That's why I felt the proverbial lightbulb turn on when, one summer evening, I heard Olive say:

"We only use what we need."

I love it. For the following reasons:

a) "We only use what we need" is not a demand for obedience, but rather an invitation to share a core value to only use what you need, whether it's toilet paper or another person's time.

b) "We only use what we need" is another way of saying "we are respectful of the greater community," that gives a concrete form to an abstract concept. Have you ever tried to explain "respect" to a 2 or 4-year-old? I have.

Me: I need you to be respectful of your brother's body.
Chicken: What's respectful?
Me: It means showing respect.
Chicken: What's respect?
Me: It's... um... respect is when you show someone else that you value them and, um, respect them I guess.
Chicken: That's not very clear, mom.
Me: Yeah.
Chicken: I think you should try again.
Me: Respect is... it's when you don't touch your brother with sticks.
Chicken: Oh.

"We only use what we need" means "I'm going to leave enough for others."

c) "We only use what we need" invites the child to determine how much he/she needs. It gives the child room to envision his/her own choices. Might that child still need some guidance about how many squares of toilet paper he/she really needs to wipe his/her bottom after a successful #1? Yes. Of course. But the language is there that the child gets to examine at the offered resource (a roll of toilet paper made up of roughly infinity squares) and choose how much he/she needs. #lifeskill

d)  "We only use what we need" sounds way better when screamed across a birthday party at your child who is literally fist-deep in an uncut birthday cake that SOMEONE left out on the edge of the counter.

I haven't noticed a night-and-day difference in my children's ability to gauge appropriate use of precious natural resources or pretzels. But I have noticed a sense of peace in myself when I say "Baby, remember, we only use what we need," that was suspiciously absent when I used to snap, "Stop wasting napkins!" And if I've learned anything in my 4 years of parenting, I can tell you that a mother's intact sense of peace is the most precious natural resource of all.

So that's today's lesson from the trenches.

Thank you, Olive!


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