Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Monkey see, monkey do

Give your children the right signals, writes Ghada Sherif*

Garbage is piling up on the streets, and every person I have spoken to seems to have an opinion of some sort, whether the government contracted collectors are performing insufficiently, or the slaughter of pigs that is deterring the Zabbaleen from collecting their usual tonnage, or the lack of dumps within accessible city limits. Theories abound on where and how we can expand new dumps.

I have yet to hear anyone comment on attempting to reduce the amount of garbage that is produced at home, or for that matter, simply state they will stop throwing garbage on the streets. Now I do understand the first argument against the latter would be "what's the alternative? Stink up the house?" To which my response would be "do you throw garbage on your living room floor? Then why is it OK to throw it on the street?"

Please bear with me while I digress on a tangent here. I am the proud mother of a wonderful three year old boy. And since I became a mother, I'm on a bit of a high horse when it comes to moral behavior, I readily admit. Nothing irritates me more than seeing what I consider inexcusable behavior conducted by a parent in full view of their kids. Adults who engage in road-rage with kids in the car, adults who throw orange peels out of the window of a car with a back seat full of kids, adults who speak rudely to others; all of these send signals to their kids that this is justifiable behavior.

I know many of my friends think I'm too strict with my kid, but there are some things I simply do not tolerate, one of which is a mess left for me to clean up. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for playful, crawling-around- on--the-floor, colorful- finger-painting-kind-of-fun, but it does need to be cleaned up when the fun is over. My son was taught at a very early age that when he is finished playing, he needs to tidy up his things, and that everything has a place. Not only does this make it less stressful for him than trying to go to sleep in a room that looks like a war zone, but it also makes it much easier to find his toys, books paints, etc., when he knows where everything is. Along the same stream of thought, he was taught that garbage goes in the garbage bin, and that he is fully capable of walking to the nearest bin to dispose of any unwanted item. No one is going to pick up after him.

Once, when he was about two, while we were out at the club, he grabbed a small milk carton and removed the straw from its little plastic wrapper, and proceeded to find the nearest bin, only to keep going around in circles when he couldn't find one. (I have to admit a toddler's sphere of comfort doesn't allow him to wonder too far in search of a garbage bin!). I watched carefully, ready to pounce on my little boy if he even looked like he was going to drop it on the ground, instead, and here I beam with pride, he strolled over to his backpack and stuffed the wrapper inside. Two thoughts crossed my mind at that point: the first is a well deserved "Bravo my little monkey" because he managed to associate the fact that since he doesn't throw garbage on the floor at home, he certainly shouldn't do it outside the home; and the second is his creativity in finding an alternative solution.

And as I write now, I have to say "little monkey" is an apt nickname indeed, since it's obvious he had seen me do the same thing on many occasions (monkey see, monkey do). I often go home with pockets full of used tissues and wrappers, and have taken to the practice of carrying an extra small plastic bag to use for garbage if there is no bin nearby. Now given that this habit is so ingrained in my son, I really cannot imagine a day will come when he so casually tosses something out of the car window as he drives along because he cannot or does not want the car ashtray to get dirty, or because he thinks the street is an oversized garbage can. I know I will not walk in on my teenage son sitting amidst a pile of chocolate wrappers and empty bags of chips with the bin an arm's length away. He won't do it because he won't know how.

We've all heard it before: "it's not like the street is so clean that my one piece of gum (or tissue, or paper etc.) is going to be the thing that dirties it." But it will, because piles of garbage are built one piece at a time, and if each person pauses before adding something to the pile, it will not grow.

So, in response to those people who wonder what the alternative is to throwing garbage on the streets, I say, walk around with a plastic bag one morning and try to pick up as much garbage as you can from your block, talk to your kid's school about organizing a community clean up one day, talk to your local council on possible alternatives for garbage removal, donate some money to your local council to purchase industrial size garbage bins that can be placed around the neighborhood, or better yet buy them yourself then donate them (we are a generous giving people, let's donate to a good cause, use some of your annual zakat money). If you have the time, volunteer at a local non- government organization and start a clean city campaign with the neighborhood kids. You'd be amazed how into it they would be.

Most importantly, ingrain wholesome habits in your kids. Talk to them, and anyone else's kid you can get find, about keeping the streets clean. Give them pride in their community, make them understand that the street is not their private garbage dump. And please, practice what you preach, give your children the right signals, and let the little monkeys mimic what is good in you.

* The writer is a UNFPA project director at the National Council for Women

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