Being an environmentalist and a parent of a young child, in my stroll around the ‘net I naturally stopped to read a blog entry called “Six Ways to Raise Eco-Conscious Toddlers.” The most important thing I do to try to teach my daughter environmental responsibility wasn’t on the list, so midway through commenting I realized I needed to write about it myself.

It isn’t explicitly about ecology at all. It crops up, not when we’re brushing teeth and I turn the water off, or when she’s learning that buses are a fun way to travel. It’s an opportunity that occurs many times every day, and if you spend any time with children, it does for you too:

Teach them to clean up after themselves.

As I said, I’m the parent of a three-year-old, so I know it’s easier to clean up yourself than to get kids to do it.  But children who find, “if I let it fall, it’s magically picked up and put away” grow into adults who think, “whatever mess I make isn’t my problem.” And that’s why they choose to believe that “The oceans / the air / the landfills have plenty of room” for whatever they throw “away.” They come to believe that there is such a thing as “away.” As grownups they assert, against the evidence, that “The earth can take care of itself” no matter what we do to it.

So when we say to our kids, “We need to put away the Legos before we get out the fingerpaints–here, I’ll help you,” we are teaching them sustainability and giving them a life skill that may keep our planet fit for human habitation.  If it isn’t too late by the time they are our age . . .

I think about this as a religious educator (and yes, parish ministers are religious educators, which is why I belong to LREDA*) and I strongly believe that in our religious education (RE) programs, cleaning up should be part of the hour, unless we want to teach children that messes magically clean up themselves–or are someone else’s problem.

We Unitarian Universalists (UUs) frequently do include environmental education in RE, where it absolutely belongs, a lively part of a basic moral education whose principles include:  don’t take more than your share; think ahead; think of others’ needs as well as your own; know the difference between needs and desires; take responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  To give examples just from the congregation I serve, the kids have made recycled paper, cooked lunch in solar ovens, written letters to paper companies, and played with models demonstrating what happens to a town built on permafrost when the Earth warms up.  They vote each year on where their collection money goes, and have voted many times to give it to rainforest protection.

That’s all good stuff. But even when the topic is “holidays and holy days,” “our religious heritage,” or “wisdom from the world’s religions,” an environmental lesson can be a part of every Sunday.  The kids get that lesson when the teacher says, “Ten minutes left.  Time to clean up, everyone,” and makes sure that everyone participates.

As with my three-year-old, who is much more motivated to throw her Legos in the box if I’m sitting beside her throwing too, we don’t have to make them do it all themselves. The teachers can help. The littlest kids don’t have to put things on high shelves. And we can explain that the kids’ parents pool their funds to pay our custodian to mop the floors and change the lights so that the kids have more time to learn (though I think a rotation of cleanup among all church members, children and adults alike, would be a good supplement to a paid custodian in any congregation). The important point is that they realize that the person who made the mess is ultimately responsible for getting things back to their original state. (Maybe I’m an environmentalist today because Montessori education, with its “everyone cleans up” philosophy, got its hooks into me when I was only 3. My preschool bears no responsibility for the cluttered state of my office, however. Hey, at least I live with the mess instead of expecting someone else to clean it up.)

As my UU colleague, Robert Fulghum, wrote in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the key lessons are there:  “Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”  The folks running BP, and the folks in Washington who let oil companies write environmental laws, and the folks all over the US who voted for them, and the folks all over the US who wrung their hands and stuck a “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Gore” sticker on their cars instead of taking action (I confess that I appear in that list), apparently didn’t fully absorb those lessons in kindergarten, but it’s not too late for today’s 5-year-olds. So, UU churches: who cleans up in your classrooms?

*Liberal Religious Educators’ Association