We were on vacation at Myrtle Beach, and it was 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. As I got up to take a peek out the window, my 6-year-old son, Andrew, was sitting up, wide-awake in the next bed. My wife and other child were sleeping soundly, so I decided to take Andrew out for a walk.
The sun was just starting to rise in the east, and the gulls were scavenging for treasure on the sand. After 10 minutes of walking, Andrew asked, "Daddy, why do people throw their garbage on the beach?"
His question took me by surprise. I guess I was so used to litter that I had been tuning it out, but now I noticed quite a few beer cans, along with some fireworks and other pieces of litter.
I thought for a few seconds before answering. "Some people are too lazy to walk to a garbage can and throw out their trash," I said.
"It makes the beach look dirty," Andrew said. "Why don't we pick up the garbage?"
Andrew began to pick up some of the trash and toss it into one of the hundred garbage cans along the beach. At first I thought about how many germs he was collecting, but it was a teachable moment, so I began to pick up trash too.
As we were collecting some cans, Andrew noticed a dead seagull by the water.
"Why did the seagull die?" he asked, a tone of concern in his voice.
"I don't know," was the best I could do.
"Did the litter on the beach kill the seagull?" he questioned.
"I guess the seagull could have choked on a piece of plastic," I replied. "Or maybe it died of old age. I just don't know the answer to your question."
Andrew looked down at the seagull and said, "Don't worry, I'll clean up this beach, so your friends won't choke."
Our 40-minute walk turned out to be a wonderful lesson (for both of us) on the environment.
I had the most incredible time with my son. I was really proud of him and thought how wonderful it would be if all of the earth's citizens had the same sentiment about litter. Our planet isn't any larger now then it was 4 billion years ago, but the amount of litter on, and even way above, the earth is immeasurable.
I learned another lesson that day. When a child is curious, we need to feed that curiosity. I know that if I had taken that walk by myself, the trash would have stayed on the beach. Maybe my son will one day make litter a thing of the past, maybe not. But he did learn to care more about the world around him, and so did I. And yes, my son and I washed our hands really well after our walk.