I do my best thinking while walking a dog, but that doesn’t mean I get to decide what I’m going to think about. Topics for rumination generally come unbidden and from unexpected quarters, as evidenced by a walk I took a few weeks ago.
I’m trying to help Hugo (our goldendoodle) past a natural shyness around strangers, so I’ve been walking him around the grounds of the hospital where I work in order that he’ll encounter more people. The hospital grounds are lovely and well-maintained, and it’s invariably in the flower beds that Hugo likes to, erm, unburden himself during our perambulations. Hugo, having done his duty as a dog, leaves me to do my duty as a responsible dog owner. As I pull a small bag out of my pocket and bend over to retrieve my dog’s jetsam, I find myself picking his poop out from among a variety of other trash – cigarette butts, soda bottles, etc. And that’s when it occurs to me:
Why am I doing this?
Of all the trash that’s been left here, the trash my dog left is the only stuff that’s biodegradable. Not only is Hugo’s trash harmless to the environment, it’s actually helpful. My dog’s poop, especially after being worked on by rain, insects, and bacteria, will nourish the soil the shrubs and flowers feed on. The cigarette butts will likely poison it. Besides, the grounds crew is going to be around soon to cart all this stuff away, anyway, and that is their job after all. So, what am I really doing here?
Now, relax, I picked up my dog’s poop. But as these thoughts ran through my head, it occurred to me that these are also the sort of thoughts that will run through a child’s head. Maybe not consciously. Certainly not in so many words. But children have a great way of sensing There’s something wrong with this picture even if they’re not able to put a finger on it. So they may not have the right question at hand. That’s where we can help.
Because it is in these smallest of acts that the heart of ethics lies. As I thought about scooping up the pup’s effluvia,* I realized there were a dozen tiny little lessons in courtesy and civic duty wrapped up in that little bolus. Ethics remain distant if we never think ethically except abstractly, or in oversized doses. But if we find the ethical in our everyday lives, it’s much easier to get a handle on issues that threaten to overwhelm us.
If a young Knucklehead were with me, I could tell him, “I’m cleaning up after the dog because it’s the right thing to do,” and I’d be correct. That would help him figure out what the rules are, which is how children must begin morally. But if I were to also explain why it’s the right thing to do, I’m helping him later on decide for himself what he should do in instances where he doesn’t have a rule available. By talking about my reasoning, and doing it often and in small doses, I’m helping him to begin to think about his own ethical reasoning, beyond “just do what I tell you.”
Maybe that’s asking a lot from dog poop.
Really, it isn’t. You just have to get used to looking at the world from your kid’s eyes, then answer the question he may not have the vocabulary to put into words. Examples:
KNUCKLEHEAD: “If it’s good for the soil, why not just leave it there?”
YOU: “Good question. Nature may not think dog poop is gross; in fact it probably thinks it’s yummy [never underestimate the power of potty humor]. But most people think poop is way grosser than other trash, and part of being a good citizen is being sensitive to your neighbors. It’s probably weird that we think poop is more disgusting than cigarette butts, but we do, and being a part of this community, I have to respect that. Besides, it’s good to stay in the habit so I don’t forget if Hugo dumps somewhere where somebody could step in it, which would be totally rude. And the groundskeepers here make sure the soil gets fed, anyway.”
KNUCKLEHEAD: “Why is it OK for other people to mess up the place and not us?”
YOU: “Another great question. It’s not OK for other people to litter. They just got away with it. This time. And if they get into that habit, sooner or later someone will find out how gross they are. Besides, I’m not trying to be just as good as everybody else. I’m trying to be the best person I can be.”
KNUCKLEHEAD: “The hospital pays people to clean up the grounds. It’s somebody’s job to clean up that mess.”
YOU: “No. Their job is to keep the hospital grounds looking good against unintentional littering, like stuff that gets away from people by accident. And to keep the grounds mowed and cared for due to normal growth and wear and tear, and they’ve got their hands full doing that. When we leave a mess on purpose, we’re making their job harder. And remember what I said about good habits. If I clean up after myself when I don’t ‘have to,’ I won’t worry about forgetting when I’m supposed to.”
KNUCKLEHEAD: “So why don’t you clean up the rest of the trash while you’re at it?”
YOU: “Atta boy. I use biodegradable dog bags, so I don’t want to get stuff in there that won’t break down. But that’s a good point, if I’m down there anyway, it’s just as easy. Maybe next time I’ll bring a bigger regular bag I can add other trash to when Hugo poops. It’ll be our way of saying ‘Thanks’ to the workers who take care of the place where we walk the dog.”
See? Your kid probably isn’t asking these questions (if she is, you’re in for a wild and wonderful ride), but is probably thinking something close to that. Daily life has a thousand things in it so confounding your average six-year-old has learned long ago to just shrug her shoulders and let it go. Help her out. Don’t wait for her to ask. Ask her, “why am I doing this?” Throw back at her all the “whys?” she threw at you when she was three. Stump her. Then you can show off how smart you are. But it also gets you into the mindset of how a kid looks at all the goofy stuff we do.
That’s how kids learn ethics. That’s how they learn to be good neighbors, good citizens, good people. By watching the little stuff you do in your neighborhood, your country, your planet, over and over again through the years. If you can give them a little play-by-play as you go through, so much the better. It helps them to make sense of things. And here’s the secret:
Sometimes it’ll help you make sense of things, too.
*I can keep this up all day.