environment & naturevirtual children by Scott Warnock

Ah, the not-so-sweet smell of sustainability

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Children today are barraged with messages about going green, about sustainability, about saving the environment. But if you are a parent, you still probably spend a lot of time walking around the house switching off lights.

Because if your kids are like my kids, there are certain lights they never turn off. Ever. And that’s just a dim glimpse into what goes on in their minds. Despite the little coloring exercises they get at school, the guilt-inducing slogans, the catchy TV ads, they are children, and they still don’t think much about it all when the (environmentally unsustainable) rubber hits the road.

But that doesn’t mean my wife and I would give up, no matter how calloused my light switch-flipping finger is. So we try to teach them. Forget those lights that we fight about nearly every day (I have mentioned they don’t turn off the lights, yes?). We try to be role models of sustainability, despite the uphill, and thus energy wasting, nature of this battle.

“We recycle paper!” I have trumpeted. You know those little tabs of paper you rip off a check that comes in the mail? I even put them in the paper recycling bin. Yet my kids draw something that may be a hobbit or a machine gun or a zebra on only one side of a piece of paper, then they chuck it in the trash can.

To the annoyance of our garbage collectors, I have often placed shards of plastic in the yellow glass and plastic bin, following the same dedication as my treatment of the tabs of check paper. I try to show the kids that every little bit counts. But they’ll suck down a Gatorade and toss it in the trash.

I’m just getting started.

We trek outside in the cold to put a peanut shell in the compost pile. But the kids will throw a whole watermelon rind in the trash can, you guessed it, next to the Gatorade bottles and one-side-only pictures of hobbit-gun-zebras.

We walk the kids to school. Rain or shine. Snow or hurricane. After all, it’s only two blocks. But is their character hardened, forged? No. Anytime they can, they all pile into a neighbor’s car to make that two-block ride. In air conditioning. Then they whine about walking to school for weeks.

Speaking of air conditioning, we almost never run the air in the summer, no matter how hot it is. In the winter, the thermostat hovers at 60 at night, and sometimes I sneak in an extra degree, dropping it to 59. They complain it’s too hot, it’s too cold, but do they burst forth from the house on a snowy day and leave the door open? They do.

They’ll eat half a taco and wander away, leaving the other half, ignorant of our pleas that they consider the kids who were happy to have a quarter of a taco for dinner. “But they probably don’t have cheese on theirs,” is the response.

I even tell them how by staying relaxed and calm you can sometimes sneak in two wears of your work shirts between washings. But my daughter I believe once had on and then hampered, a new definition I just created, 11 outfits. Before noon.

In the face of our failed role modelship, we thought all was lost.

But then we stumbled upon their sustainability niche. We mentioned to them how much water they could save by not running the faucet while brushing their teeth and taking shorter showers. Blankness. But then I mentioned the magic word: toilet.

I said if I use the bathroom and then one of them uses the bathroom and then we flush, we could save water. We pointed out that they could do even better by having one flush in the morning when the three of them make a similarly goal-based quick bathroom journey. We used precise measurements, in both standard and metric volumes.

This resonated with them, especially for our boys. Non-flushing became their immediate contribution to sustainability. Indeed, they have saved thousands of gallons of water. Maybe millions.

Because let me tell you, they do not flush.

I’m proud, although there is a cost associated with this green living. But does it matter that when you walk by one of our smartly appointed bathrooms you are brought to your knees by a nostril-curdling stench more powerful than the kiddie shoe bin in a fast food restaurant play area? Does it matter that when you enter that bathroom, the olfactory assault is reminiscent of an old Vet Stadium bathroom in the fourth quarter of an Eagles game? Does it matter that should you battle through the effluvium that you, in horror, see a film of what can only be a form of advanced, perhaps malevolently intelligent, algae?

Even my pride has its limits, so I’ve ask them, gagging, choking, why they don’t flush? “We don’t want to waste water,” they say, providing statistics, using my data against me. They recite the mellow-yellow-brown-down toilet etiquette mnemonic device (which, I might add, is not always followed). They are downright angelic in their intentions.

So, there it is. This is their environmentalism. Ah, it brings a tear to my eye. But whether it’s the tear of genuine emotion or one induced by a miasma of vaporized ketones and ammonia — my god, especially after asparagus night — you, reader, will have to be the judge.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “Ah, the not-so-sweet smell of sustainability”

  1. I loved reading this, Scott! I often feel as though I just walk in circles turning off light switches, and it does seem that children are masters of internalizing adult reasoning just so they can use it against us at just the right moment!

  2. This was hilarious and sooo true. I have found away to help with the laundry (I think). It took a half hour of screaming torture, but I taught my daughter to wash her own clothes yesterday – today she will learn about folding. Maybe she will think twice about 11 outfits before noon… I can alway dream can’t I.

  3. Great observations, as always Scott, and I’m right there with you, recycling the tags on my tea bags. Just want to add something your daughter may try to do in a couple years to rival her brothers,… turning off the lights (and closing the door) when her and the boyfriend are in the other room “watching” TV. All in the name of conserving, of course!

  4. Great observations,I completely hear what your saying.My kids are told everyday to do these simple tasks,do they listen,heck no.Bottles in the trash,not the recycling bin,lights never turned off,and worst off all toilet never flushed.I explained to them if these simple tasks are not done efficiently,their xbox privliges will be revoked.Every night lights are turned off toilet flushed,recycled items go where their supposed too.My goodness that one word xbox is a key to there sudden change in responsability.Great article,once again your words echo throughout many households.

  5. Another good one, Scott.

    A guy once showed me a miniature stun gun that administered a mild shock. I began dreaming of how I could attatch a nine inch shaft to the device, turn down the power so that it could accommodate a 3- 10 year old child, and walk into the living room like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter, and GET THE RESPECT I DESERVE!! I’d wave my little “Kiddie Prod” and see who wants to step up to Da Boss! I think I could get them to remember to pick up their clothes and turn off the lights very quickly. lol

    Ah, but that would get me locked up. But I can still dream of what could be.

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