Monday, August 25, 2003

Nature Versus Nurture Versus Dirty Dishes

Nature Versus Nurture Versus Dirty Dishes
Ashley Harper

There can be no doubt that somewhere coiled tensely in my daughter’s DNA is the tendency, my tendency, to fear random possibility. The child is genetically encoded to fret. I don’t talk about my apocalyptic nightmares in front of my kids, or voice my doubts about men on park benches, or even disclose to them the fact that every single piece of Double Bubble I’ve ever seen looks like it’s had needles poked into it. So if I am holding my cover – and I think I am – what other than an unfortunate match-up on her genetic bingo card would make her suddenly stop mid-stride on her scooter, stare fixedly at the sidewalk, and then look up and ask wide-eyed, “What if I run out of energy?”

She did not ask this because she was tired or feeling rundown. After all we had just been to a cafĂ© where she ate a borrachito, which is basically just a fist-sized ball of chocolate. Though the waiter told me that it was laced with rum, I don’t think her question was a sentimental slur. She was dead serious, and she was truly worried.

At our house, we try to recycle, or at least we separate glass from paper, tin from plastic. Of course, then there is nothing to do but set it out on the curb with the regular trash, but the intention is there, if not the local recycling plant. We don’t leave the water running to brush our teeth or flush each time, nor do I let the grass turn to dust or close the faucet after each spoon is rinsed. So I don’t think it is from her environment (i.e. nurture) where she has taken her latest environmental obsession.

One night recently, she came sobbing into her brother’s room where we were reading the Diggin’est Dog, the one where the dog doesn’t know how to dig because he grew up in a pet shop on “that hard stone floor.” (Should I mention puppy mills to the kids?)

“What happened?” I asked her.

“Gus….Gus….Gus left the….” And here she couldn’t give me any more intelligible information about what her little brother had apparently left, or where he had apparently left it.

I looked to Gus for help, but he just returned to the book with a 3-year-old’s exasperated sigh, meaning something like, “Don’t even drag me into this one, ‘cuz I’ve no idea what she’s talking about.”

“Did he take something?” I prompted, giving Gus an accusatory look just in case.

“I didn’t take anything!” he shrieked.

My daughter valiantly tried again. “Gus left the…he left the…THE WATER WAS ON IN THE BATHROOM!” Again the last bit she blurted out in a new wash of tears and panting.

Gus and I stared at each other through dim slit eyes, the water? What was she talking about?

“Gus left the water on in the bathroom?”

“Yes! And there’s no rain here and there’s no water and you can’t waste water like that, Gus! You always waste water!!” She covered her face with her hands and shook the tears out into her palms in little gasps.

It is true, we do not live where there is much water, and wasting it is a very unhealthy and un-civic thing to do, but come on. The two of them had just brushed their teeth, closing the water during the brushing part, not five minutes before, and we were only talking about a tiny trickle, like you might use to keep your pipes from freezing – unless of course you have a daughter like mine. So now, no one in the family can finish rinsing the soap from their hands or washing out that last bit of toothpaste before she comes up behind you shouting and wrenches off the water. The dinner plates stay crusty and I worry what this could mean for her already sketchy bathing habits.

I want my children to grow up with a realistic world-view. It’s important that they know our natural resources have limits, and that there are strangers who will harm you, or people who don’t have the things they need. But soaking oneself in fear and panic is not going to save more than a few gallons of water, and may even do more to dry up hope, especially if you’re not even in second grade yet. We try to educate our children about what is real without frightening them away from experience, and from the desire and belief that they can make their world better.

I am proud that I may have the only daughter who wants to be a fairy princess in watershed management, and I know that her concern gives me daily pause in my habits of consumption, but I think I have spawned living proof of how we can’t escape our nature. Now I can only hope that some fast acting in the nurture department can save my daughter from a life wrought with panic-invoked stasis, and our cereal bowls from dried on bran flakes.

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