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We don’t want or like litterbugs: teaching your children not to litter is a valuable life lesson.

I can no longer simply drive past the little litterbugs – those children who drop their chip packets, cool drink cans and chocolate wrappers  on the street while walking.  I tend to stop my car, interrogate them, and demand they pick up after themselves.

“Why did you throw that in the street, when there’s a rubbish bin a metre from where you dropped it?” I yell. The guilty 10-year-old glares at me as though I am insane or dangerous.

Curiously, it seems the whole idea of putting discarded wrappers into a bin designed for that purpose is a foreign concept. When pressed to answer my question, some of the responses have left me flabbergasted. “But we are creating jobs,” said some indignant little litterbugs!

Lead by example

It’s not a stab in the dark to conclude that children like these are only following the example set by their parents and the caregivers in their lives. But attitudes like this are extremely dangerous. Alderman Clive Justus, chairman of the City of Cape Town’s Special Water and Waste Portfolio Committee, says there seems to be a growing tolerance by the public, not only of litter, but also of the litterbugs responsible for it. When residents indiscriminately fill our outdoor public spaces with litter,  it negatively impacts on the city’s tourist appeal.

According to published statistics, Johannesburg collects 1.4 million tons of rubbish a year (of which 244 200 tons is illegally dumped and 1 779 tons is litter from the streets).

Teaching children to be responsible for disposing of their rubbish starts at home.

Creating responsible citizens

“Children need to develop a sense of responsibility for themselves, others and the world in which they live,” explains Johannesburg-based educational psychologist Melanie Hartgill. “If parents create a loving and supportive home environment and teach their children to understand the enormity of their behaviour and decisions, like choosing to place litter in bins and clean up after themselves, it’s a good start. If parents also teach their children morals, values, and respect for others at the same time, then their children will have a foundation for social responsibility,” she notes.

Simply put, littering is dangerous. Once children are aware of this, the habit of picking up after themselves and others and disposing of their rubbish becomes a no-brainer. Several studies have shown that the presence of litter encourages a range of far more heinous social problems. There is a direct link between the presence of litter in neighbourhoods and criminal behaviour.

Extend their awareness

Preventing children from becoming litterbugs has to start with the parents. It’s not enough merely to make sure your child doesn’t witness you tossing a chocolate wrapper on the street, you need to do more to foster their social responsibility. “Spend time outdoors, go for walks and picnics, and spend time in your own garden,” suggests Hartgill. “Encourage and help your children to plant and look after a small patch of garden. (Small plants in pots will work.)

These activities allow children to become aware of their environment. Furthermore, it provides opportunities to discuss the delicate balance of nature and our responsibility to preserve it. A sense of social responsibility in terms of protecting and preserving our environment is an investment in our and their future.”

When to start?

Don’t wait for your children to be older before introducing them to the principles of taking pride in their environment. “Even preschoolers and very young children can be educated about not leaving rubbish behind and throwing things away responsibly. Remember that toddlers love being given little ‘jobs’ and ‘responsibilities’,” says Hartgill.

In addition, you can make social responsibility fun and an adventure. Start recycling at home and get busy with some eco-friendly projects. Take a walk around your neighbourhood or community centre with your children, identifying areas that could benefit from a serious clean-up.

It really is a case of the sooner the better.

Arrange a neighbourhood clean-up

  • Before the event, parents should visit the site and identify or remove any asbestos, old carpets, old fridges and metal.
  • Look out for any drug-related litter, and remove this before the children arrive.
  • All volunteers should wear protective gloves and closed footwear.
  • A particular group should be equipped with a brush, shovel and a container, and be placed in charge of collecting glass.
  • Take a first-aid kit along.
  • Explain possible hazards to everyone before the clean-up begins.
  • Make sure that no-one wanders off on their own; children should be organised into groups of no fewer than four and be under adult supervision.
  • Ensure that children wash their hands at the end of the event.

Laura Twiggs