Articles and Topics
Teaching Children Not to Waste
Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit Mainland China—at that time called the People’s Republic of China—to study their early childhood programs. Although little then was known about China in the Western world, the word had somehow spread that the country had an impressive network early childhood programs. And, to be sure, it did. Even though there were features of the pedagogy that many of the American educators in the delegation disapproved of, there was unanimity of opinion that the programs were of high quality and said a great deal about the willingness of the country to put scarce economic resources into early education.

Over the three weeks of the visit, which must have involved 30 early childhood centers, I developed a standard set of questions I would ask the directors. The main question was: “What do you try to teach the children?” Never have I forgotten the answer I received the very first time I asked it: “We teach them not to waste the grain.”

We teach them not to waste the grain. There’s a touch of poetry in the answer, isn’t there? It set me to reflecting on whether I would ever get such an answer in America, either from a preschool teacher or from a parent. Obviously the answer is “No,” though teaching children not to waste should be a vital component of education both at home and at school.

Let’s go back to China for a moment. The Chinese didn’t have a lot of developmentally appropriate and appealing toys to use in their classrooms at that time. So they used what they had, and often what they had was a big bag of rice. For an early math exercise, the teachers poured different amounts of dry rice into cups and asked the children which one had more grains and which had fewer. Older children who were beginning to count might be asked to tell how many grains of rice were laid out before them. To teach classification, children might be given a plate of uncooked rice that had some “bad” grains in it and asked to sort them and remove the bed ones. And, of course, in China the rice was cooked and prepared for them to eat. Not wasting rice was important for them to learn and an entirely justifiable curriculum objective.

It is just as important for our children to learn not to waste. Resources in our country—trees, water, arable land—have always seemed so abundant that we didn’t need to worry about a shortage. But now we have a lot more people competing for those resources, some of which are diminishing. We are realizing that these and other resources are not endless, and that we have to learn to conserve. And for whom is conservation important? Obviously, for our children. It is during their adulthood that shortages will become acute if we don’t teach them not to waste.

The Importance of Modeling
In helping our children acquire values that will help them as individuals and as carriers of our culture, the most important type of teaching we do is provided by the example we set. If we “waste the grain,” our children will waste it. If we trash our recyclables, our children won’t care whether they protect the landfills and save trees or not. If we leave the shower running while we talk on the phone, which inconveniently rang at the wrong moment, they won’t think that saving water is important. If we leave all the house lights on or the thermostat on a high level when we leave the house for several hours, they won’t think that conservation of energy means much in our household.

As teaching adults, we may have to make an exaggerated point about the importance of not wasting valuable resources in order to get our point across. When our baby spills or pours out baby food on a high chair tray, we usually take a wet sponge to it. It might be better to make certain the tray is sanitized before the feeding begins and then ostentatiously returning spilled or thrown food back into the jar. That can be accompanied by a remark: “Those beans are good, and we’re not going to waste them.”

When my children were growing up they knew how important I considered conservation of resources, and now my grandchildren know. For years I have been using my blender to grind up vegetables skins. My family teases me about my composting, and refers to the place where I pour out the residue as “Swill Hill.” But I simply reply that the custom is good not only for my flowerbeds but for our water supply. Because of this custom, the water supply doesn’t have to cope with my fruit and vegetable peelings.

Also, whenever my family and I go out for dinner together, I make a point of carrying home a doggy bag of whatever I don’t eat—something I used to think was terribly gauche—and eating it for my lunch the next day. Another bit of modeling I try to do on the theme of recycling has led to a wonderful family custom. Every Sunday evening my granddaughters, who live just a block from me, come to my house and carry my recycle bin out to the street. Sometimes they don’t anchor the newspapers properly, and I may have to go out and pick up those that blew away, but they know how important I consider what they are doing.

If there is a better way than modeling to teach children the importance of not wasting, I don’t know what it is. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to verbalize slogans like “Waste not, want not” every now and then, but that won’t have the impact of your own environmentally-conscious behavior. If we set a good example they’ll learn “not to waste the grain.”
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education