On the way to dropping off my 6-year-old at first grade one day last week he made an observation.
“Daddy, this sidewalk is really messy,” he told me.
This was a few days after Halloween and there were candy wrappers, lollipop sticks and other trash all over the sidewalk and grass near his school. It was disgusting and in need of cleaning up.
Then, my son, kicked it up a notch.
“We should clean it up,” he told me.
At that moment, I faced a choice. I could tell him that that job belonged to a school employee or someone who lived in that immediate area. Had I said that, he probably never would have mentioned it again and I would have been absolved of any and all involvement.
Instead, I told him, “You’re right. We should clean it up. Let’s do it this week.”
And we did. On a day off from school that week he and I loaded up some trash bags and several pairs of rubber gloves and headed to his school for our private volunteer effort. We spent 30 minutes picking up garbage — everything from half eaten lollipops to dirty diapers. We learned that people do not discriminate when it comes to littering.
My son participated willingly for the bulk of the time before asking how much longer we had to be there. Typical 6-year-old stuff. But as we walked to the car after our work I told him a few things:
1). We did a good deed. I told him that he should be proud of himself for spotting a problem and wanting to fix it. I want him to have pride in his desire to make a difference and know that it’s ok to feel good about what we did.
2). We didn’t do it for praise. My son has never met a stranger. He will invite random people over to our house for a play date or tell people his life story (he’s 6, it’s brief) without prompting. I feared that he would be emboldened to announce his good deed to the entire school community on the next school day. I wanted him to realize that sometimes in life we do things not for accolades or praise but because it’s the right thing to do. So far, he’s kept our efforts to himself.
3). If we see a problem and we can help solve it, we should. My goal was to use this experience as a springboard to help him understand the act of serving others. My son is a thoughtful, helpful, genuine child. He is naturally ebullient and outgoing so his opportunities to positively impact his community and his world are immense. Maybe this simple act of picking up some garbage and temporarily beautifying his school grounds will inspire him to make serving others a part of his life.
In the grand scheme of things, this was a small act of service. But maybe people walking to school with their kids will notice something different. Maybe they’ll see that there’s not as much trash on the ground and hesitate before dropping a piece of garbage. Maybe they’ll search for a trashcan instead. That will make my son’s goal a reality.