What I Learned That Time My Son Watched Me Not Pick Up Trash

As a parent, it’s totally possible to screw up, panic, and try again. With absolutely no lasting damage.

One evening, after school, while riding home on the city bus, my almost-three-year-old saw an empty bag of chips under the seats across from us. He asked me what it was, even though he knew, and when I said, “What do you think it is?” he said, “Chips?”

He started to get up out of his seat, the bus chugging forward through a stretch of green lights. “Wait,” I told him. “You know you can’t eat them?”

He knew. “I want to throw them away,” he said.

This isn’t me trying to get a pat on the back for raising an environmentally aware and committed toddler. Ten minutes earlier, he’d found a similar discarded bag of Doritos on our way to the bus stop and carried it two blocks to a green mesh garbage can where he ceremoniously dunked it, like a basketball, and grinned for anybody who was looking to see. He likes throwing things away. I don’t know why, but it’s great.

Anyway, the bus idled at a light, and I said it was okay for him to get up and grab the chips, Funions I think they were, but a pack of three teenagers shuffled down the aisle and settled into seats seconds before my son could extract his garbage. He looked up at me. “Mommy?”

“You can still go get it,” I told him. “Just say, excuse me.” He considered this. Then he shook his head. The kids were obviously bigger than him, they were sweet, but loud and goofy and they took up space, all the space.

“Can you do it?” he whispered to me. 

And all at once, I was not his mother; I was a pre-teen version of myself. The bus was my old yellow school bus and I was sitting with my similarly socially catatonic friend.

Say EXCUSE ME, to these big kids, these kids who might be totally mean to me, laugh at me, or at the very least roll their eyes about me and the way I just said excuse me like a MOM would? Ask THESE kids to move so I can crawl around their backpacks and sneakers on my hands and knees on the sticky floor of this bus to get a piece of trash that isn’t even mine? Are you kidding me? NO. WAY. 

I returned to earth, to my son, in Brooklyn, on the B67. I was myself again, my 33-year-old adult self. I had an umbrella stroller in one hand, two tote bags in another, and a 35-inch toddler to keep from flying forward into a pole every time the bus lurched, as buses always do. It wouldn’t have just been scary to approach these kids. It would’ve been silly, especially since our stop was seconds away.

“Oh,” I grabbed my son’s hand as the doors wheezed open. “This is it, this is our stop, come on, let’s get off!”

He turned back longingly toward the empty bag of chips hidden behind a wall of denim.

“But Mommy,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “We can’t get those chips right now. But we’ll get other chips, other trash, so much trash! I promise we will get all the trash!”

We lumbered out the back exit of the bus and practically fell onto an abandoned coffee cup lid waiting for us on the curb.

My eyes opened wide. “Trash!” I pointed madly at it. “Do you want to pick it up?”

“No,” my son shook his head with finality and looked off into the distance, toward a display rack in the window of our local bagel store. It was stocked with full bags of chips, bags that might soon be the sort of garbage his mother wouldn’t have the guts to pick up in the back of a bus, helping further undo the already tenuous future of our planet.   

I didn’t want to be that mother.

So, I picked up the lid, nobody in the way to stop me.

“I’ll throw it away,” I said.

My son shot out in front of me, past the syrup and Christmas trees for sale outside a church near our house. He stopped suddenly in front of a dirty, flattened paper coffee cup.

I held my breath.

Could I have undone so quickly my humiliating complicity in littering just a few moments earlier by showing my son what I should’ve done and then, you know, doing it?

The answer is yes.

Parents of young children, IT MAY JUST BE THAT EASY.

He picked up the coffee cup!!!

I know saving the planet is not that simple, that we should buy our chips in bulk, if at all, and bring reusable coffee mugs to our local café instead of wasting another paper product. I know there is SO much more than that to do. I also know that I really need to confront my own personal fear of groups of adolescent children. I know, I know.

But in the meantime, it was so comforting to see that, when we screw up or get scared, we can actually try again. We can be the people we want our kids to see us being.

We can find a lid and throw it the hell away.

Posted on Categories Parents as People