by Elizabeth Small – “STOP! I need you to roll down my window! Now, mama! Please!?”
My 4-year-old-daughter pleaded in shouts from the backseat. Fearing she was sick, I quickly pulled the car over and opened her window. Straightaway, she popped her little head out of the window, and shouted:
“You! Over there!” She yelled to a 40-something, rough-and-tumble man as he tossed his cigarette butt to the ground. “I see you! Polluter! Polluter! Polluter! Stop that Polluter!”
Stupefied, I put the car into drive and peeled off like I had just committed a drive-by shooting.
“What on earth was that? You know better than to yell at people!” I yelled without irony.
The blank sweetness in her face made it clear that she was surprised at my exacerbated reaction.
“But mama,” she said in her most serious tone, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
I couldn’t help but giggle. The Dr. Seuss environmental story ‘The Lorax’ had turned my baby girl into a guerrilla activist.
Honestly, part of me wanted to high five my daughter and say, “Atta girl!” I couldn’t help but be proud that she stood for her convictions.
But the rational part of me treaded water as I thought about how to explain a better approach. I wanted her to understand name-calling just makes people shut down–not learn.
As parents, of course we want to raise children who care “an awful lot” about the world around them. But how do we teach them to do so without judgment?
As soon as an idea is imbued with a sense of moral value, I believe, it’s easy to become lazy in one’s thinking, from the highest towers of international diplomacy to the lowest pits of the playground sandbox.
In other words, when we feel righteous, we often forget civility. So by the time we reach adulthood, we trade shouting out the car windows for harsh judgment. We think, “You should agree with me because it is the right thing!”
As a kid growing up in strict Catholic household, I recall the first time I heard the term “Cafeteria Catholic” during a holiday dinner. I was just starting school and adored cafeterias, so I couldn’t understand why the phrase made a host of ladies shake their gray heads and utter “tsk, tsk.” I whispered to my mom, “Why is that bad?”
She put her warm breath to my ear and said, “Because some people think that you shouldn’t pick and chose teachings. They think that you can’t just be a little bit Catholic.”
“Why, not?” I asked. “Isn’t it good that they are even a little bit?”
But here’s the thing: “Earthling” is not a canonized identity, and no one has a claim to what it means. No one gets to decide whether or not you are a good steward. So if we want a healthy environment, not only do we have to be conservationists but we also have to respect the little things our neighbors are doing to contribute. And that includes the “sometimes” environmentalists.
In our household we’ve made some big changes, but we are far from perfect. And I’m fortunate enough to share friendships with people I consider akin to clergy in the movement toward environmentalism. I honor their sacrifices and hold them out as noble examples of what I am striving to be. Right now, however, our family is merely active laity in that role. But we are constantly re-examining ourselves to improve in small ways.
Our family’s goal this month is to spend some time reading the speeches and teachings of society’s great change-makers, encouraging our kids to communicate in ways that make people really hear what they have to say. I suspect that none will suggest yelling from windows.
Elizabeth Small is a lawyer by training, writer by nature, and wife and mother by spirit. She has lived up and down the east coast of the United States, in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and now resides in Connecticut.