Social Conscience Vs. Personal Hygiene?

Updated on March 12, 2010
M.O. asks from Highland Park, NJ
12 answers

Hi moms,

I am the mom of a wonderful, bright, sensitive, sometimes very intense 3-year-old boy. At his preschool, they're currently doing a unit on "be kind to the earth" -- something like that. The thing is, my son has sort of taken this concept and run with it. If he sees any sort of garbage on the sidewalk, regardless of the provenance and vintage of said garbage, he's feels absolutely responsible for picking it up and throwing it away. And he's incredibly proud and joyous about the whole thing. I really think the motivations behind this are so precious and extraordinary that I'm hesitant to squash them (and this is a very sensitive, easily squashed kid). But ... garbage. Any kind of garbage. My approach so far has been to carry hand sanitizer around and wash my son's hands immediately after a garbage pickup, and to get him to a bathroom for a thorough handwash as soon as possible afterwards. But I'm still a little concerned about the hygienic implications of this sweet, wonderful phase.

Oh, and yes, I have had moments of getting utterly paranoid about things like needles. I THINK that in the small town where we live (which is populated just about exclusively by professors, grad students, Orthodox Jews, and pharmacologists) that's a pretty low risk, and the plan is that when and if we're in somewhere like NYC, I'll tell him it's the garbage man's job to pick things up there. But, I don't know, any suggestions on striking a world-saving/health-saving balance?


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answers from Houston on

My kids are the same way! They see litter anywhere and they feel responsible for picking it up. So far I've just let them do it (within reason). If we are taking a walk or going to a park where I know it's going to happen I carry a small garbage bag and a few plastic "lunch lady" gloves with us and we do litter clean up together. It's fun and they are so proud when they are done!

You don't have to worry about this where you are but my son picked up a soda can one day and ended up with ant bites all over his hand from the fire ants, yuck!

Good luck,

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answers from Victoria on

It is awesome what your son is feeling. Keep that loving nature going & here is how! keep a zip bag in your purse. when you have som trash to pick up. Turn zip bag inside out have son put hand in bag & pick up trash & dispose of trash, then have him pull bottom of bag out leaving nasty part inside & zip bag closed. Once really gross, trash as well & continue with hygienic handwashing when you can. I would educate him about some trash that is better left for sanitation engineers, like broken glass, needles, chemicals, etc.... Best of luck. My mom does this while walking on her local nature trail. :)

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answers from New York on

Too bad they don't make rubber gloves for children!! Kids seem to naturally have a fascination with trash, at least his current interest is in cleaning it up, not seeing each brightly colored shard of plastic or scrap of paper as a "treasure" which is how they looked to my daughter-LOL. We would spend part of every walk along a sidewalk, through a parking lot, anywhere outside, saying "no, that is dirty, don't touch it, it's trash", and then Earth day would near and she would get a whole new list of reasons why she SHOULD pick them up to help the earth. While you don't want to squash his enthusiasm, you don't want him picking up trash EVERY time you walk somewhere. Maybe you could plan a few "special walks" where once a week the 2 of you will walk around the neighborhood to pick up trash, tell him some things are dangerous to touch and you will pick those up for him (or if too dangerous, leave them for a "professional").

I do like one of the other mammas ideas of mentioning to the teacher that she should tell the kids to get their parents permission before picking anything up, because even though it is good for the earth, it may not be good for them to touch it.

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answers from Orlando on

Some trash can hurt him, like broken glass or sharp edges of cans. I would speak with his teacher and explain your concerns, citing that he may not be the only one. Ask her if she will speak with the kids about the importance of getting parent's permission before picking up trash. Then, still carry hand santizer and/or wipes and allow him to continue.

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answers from Denver on

Maybe buy him one of those "grabber" toys to use to pick up trash. If you cant find the toy version, they have them in the grocery store in the ace bandage aisle. Explain to him that not even the garbage men use their hands to pick up trash.

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answers from St. Cloud on

I am right with you, M.! I once had to stop my son (he was a toddler at the time) from picking up a used condom off the sidewalk in our lovely small town. He freaked out because there was garbage that I wouldn't let him pick up.
We have a rule that other people's trash is only picked up when we have gloves on. The risk of finding a needle is higher than most people can guess, not to mention other sharp objects.
Being aware of germs is not a character flaw. I think you already have plenty of balance!

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answers from Portland on

Maybe make it fun and get one of those grabber things so he can pick up little with it instead of his hands?
Congrats on having a little guy with such care and love in his heart! :)



answers from Dallas on

I would just continue with what you're doing. He's learning to care for our planet and also learning about germs and good hygeine.

My 4-year-old daughter loves to "clean up our neighborhood", so we take a bag with us a couple of times a week when we walk the dog. When this started, I made sure she knew not to touch broken bottles or cigarette butts (the butts are probably not that much worse than other garbage, but they're disgusting and I just don't want my baby to touch them!). I also keep a pretty close eye on what she's picking up and what kind of garbage is in front of us. If it's too gross or dangerous, I'll ask her to either leave it or let me pick it up.

Since our garbage-collecting sorties are almost always limited to the time we are walking the dog, it's easy for me to wash her hands when it's over. If you can't wash immediately after a garbage-collecting session, the hand sanitizer is a great idea. He may be a little young for this yet -- because it takes at least a few days to complete, but there are experiments where you actualy grow bacteria from your hand, kitchen sponge, doorknobs, telephone, etc. by touching a surface. Someone below mentioned an apple experiment; I've seen it done with sliced bread as well. We touch some pretty nasty stuff every day without even realizing it.

You're doing a great job with your young man!



answers from San Francisco on

I think it's adorable, and you are a little phobic. Just watch what he's picking up, use the hand sanitizer and then wash his hands when you get home.

I'm a handwasher myself, so no offense. But indulging him is this is way more important than pristine hands. That's what immune systems are for. i highly doubt you're going to encounter any needles.



answers from St. Joseph on

Well it's nice to know I'm not the only one going through this. LOL. I would recommend having a conversation with him about the importance of washing his hands after handling trash, etc. (do the apple me if you don't have it and I'll tell you how). The conundrum that I encountered was also how to not make him a germaphob. My nephew became OCD because of a Kindergarten teacher that had them washing their hands over 15 times a day! He won't even take a bite off someone else's fork or plate (even if they are a family member).

Perhaps, you could just make a date with him to do a trash pick up day. Our town does this once a year but you could make it like Saturday mornings and just go around your neighborhood or to a park. Maybe even make up flyers and make it a class project! I think it's smart course to get our kids thinking about the earth in ways we have all taken for granted. I know my son has me recycling more than I used to (I just felt it was too much work even though I KNEW it was the right thing to do)...but with HIS help, well it makes it easier and more fun! Wet Wipes makes a soft pocket packet of antibacterial wet wipes and they also make individually wrapped ones (like the old wipes we'd get at KFC). I'd suggest just keeping those in the car, backpack, purse, etc. and using them when you need to.

You mentioned the safety of this as well. I would recommend making up a poster of things he CAN pick up and things he CAN'T pick up. I mean, really does he KNOW what a needle looks like as trash? What about can lids or glass, or blades? There are lots of dangerous things out there and you aren't going to be able to watch over him all the time but you can guide him in the right direction. Another idea is to get him a pair of kid size gardening gloves and tell him that when you go picking up trash he has to wear his gloves for protection. Most garbage collectors wear them too, they aren't just for cold weather! LOL Good luck!



answers from Kansas City on

You could buy some disposable latex gloves at the pharmacy or at a restaurant supply co. (Sam's Club may even have them), and keep a couple pairs in your bag. When he is out, he can just slip them on, and you can dispose of them when you are done. Then use the hand sanitizer and I think you would be good.

What a sweetie pie!!



answers from Scranton on

Wow, that is a tricky one. Maybe if you just insist he does not grab the trash, he has to show it to you first, that may help at least safety wise. I have a girlfriend who was being socially conscience and picked up a bottle in the street. It was broken and she sliced a tendon in her thumb... and she was 25 years old! I would worry a little about the germs but a lot more about safety.

Congrats on having a child who is so concerned about the planet!


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