The Littlest Apostolate, or: Why I Let My Kid Pick Up Trash

by | Jul 24, 2014 | How We Roll, Parenting | 28 comments

I let my kid pick up trash. Other people’s trash. In public places. It’s our own weird little apostolate.

I didn’t always, of course. I was a first time mom once, too, trailing after my kid at the park, saying, “No, no, honey. Don’t touch that. That’s yucky.”

But I’ve had enough kids and they’ve asked enough questions that I have had to evaluate exactly WHY I was spending so effort much keeping my children from picking up trash and throwing it away. Because, for whatever reason, picking up and throwing away trash is a thing each of my toddlers has been really interested in doing. Really, REALLY interested.

I would SAY, “No, that’s yucky,” but, for me, that wasn’t really the reason. I don’t have a thing about germs. Some folks do, I just don’t. If you have a thing about germs, then this probably isn’t the best little apostolate for you.

But, for me, that wasn’t the reason. For me the reason was: There must be someone else to do that.

My kids saw a mess that needed cleaning. They saw a job that needed doing. They know trash when they see it. They know what we’re supposed to do with trash. They wanted to do it. They saw a little way they could help.

But I saw something that wasn’t our job. Something that, well, wasn’t that just a little beneath us? To pick up other people’s trash?

Don’t they hire people to do that?

And other such grown-up-type thoughts. But grown-up-type thoughts aren’t always the best thoughts. Sometimes, maybe more often than I’d like to admit, my children’s childlike thoughts are way better.

At some point, I realized that if I didn’t have a good answer to the question, “Why Mom? Why can’t I throw it away?” Then the answer should be, “You can. That’s awfully nice of you.”

So now that’s what we do. If they want to pick up trash, they may pick up trash. If they get sticky I wipe them off with a wipe. I might even tell them to go rinse their hands off in the drinking fountain. But I don’t carry soap or hand sanitizer and we’ve never gotten any diseases. My kids don’t get sick a lot in general anyway.

It’s a little thing. A very little thing. But we get plenty out of it. The family that shows up at the playground after us gets a tidier park. I get to NOT say, “No” to something my kid wants to do. I get to teach my kids (or they get to teach me) that we’re not so special that we can’t do little things for other people. Even “yucky” little things.

And I get a good reminder that if something around me needs doing, who better than me to do it? When better than now? It’s . . .


  1. Ashley Sue

    My husband does this still as an adult, and I love it. Its this synthesis of care about God's creation, being in the moment, and a great modeling behavior for the chickadees. I have to admit that before I married this guy, I never picked up trash or saw the value. What a great apostolate for children allowing them to see tangible results of what they do does make a difference.

    • Adrie Little

      My husband does this, too! He's a maintenance guy at our camp, so he's constantly picking stuff up or fixing this or tightening that. And he just can't stop himself- he does it everywhere. He's the guy who re-screws in the trim in the restaurant while waiting for our food. And oh, how I love him for it!

  2. Sophie שרה Golden

    You are wonderful.
    I was/am an only child and you can tell, my mum never let me do that even though I loved picking up others' trash and throwing into the garbage bin (hope it's a correct word, my English might not be very koherent nowadays).
    Now I have two children and my parenting style is little different from my parents, but I still find difficult to let my boys touch trash and not to desinficate their hands afterwards.
    Well, what can I do, I need couple of more babies to relax on that 😀

    P.S. We are fine with recycling though, my 2 years old is a pro at separating paper, bio, glass and plastic garbage – that's how ecofriendly we are overhere in Sachsony :o)

  3. Mary @ Better Than Eden

    We do this, too! I get weird looks at the baseball games sometimes. But for all the same reasons (plus it keeps the toddler BUSY which is always a plus). We even went out on EARTH DAY one year (cue horrified gasps) with plastic bags to do it down our street. It was really good. I do need to be better about doing it consistently and even when it's not convenient. Littering makes me really angry because it's just so. lazy. and rude. Thanks for the encouragement to keep it up!

  4. Molly

    Yep, I've got an Eagle Scout for a husband – we do not let trash just sit there. I'm glad I'm not the only one who doesn't tote around hand sanitizer either.

  5. Wendy Klik

    When our kids were young we always took trash bags with us on our hikes and walks so that we could pick up litter. It is a great lesson you are teaching your young ones. We are all responsible for this beautiful earth with which God has blessed us.

  6. Theresa @ OrdinaryLovely

    My husband and kids are really good at this. He takes them around our neighborhood with our two wagons to collect whatever garbage they can find. I have been known to ask the kids to leave trash alone b/c "even though it's really unfortunate that it's there, it's not our job to clean it up." Perhaps I need to adopt more of the apostolate mentality 🙂

  7. Alana Barranco

    I grew up picking up trash too! (Thanks Mom and Dad!) Matthew West has a song out called "Do Something" and in the song it calls us to apostolates like this. Its got the kind of beat that gets stuck in your head which creates a nice reminder to do something.

    If not us, then who
    If not me and you
    Right now, it’s time for us to do something
    If not now, then when
    Will we see an end
    To all this pain
    It’s not enough to do nothing
    It’s time for us to do something

  8. Liza Y

    This is awesome and a great perspective on something every family has gone through with toddlers! Unfortunately I will have to keep saying "no" because my current toddler-aged son has food allergies so I can't risk him touching something with nuts or dairy and having a reaction. But I do love the idea of a little apostolate. My older son loves to hold the doors open for people, it can be annoying because it really slows me down entering or leaving places, but then I see the look on people's faces and realize a simple gesture of kindness from a child can really brighten people's days.

  9. Amelia Bentrup

    We've always done this. In fact, my mom always takes a trash bag with her on walks so she can pick up trash and carry it home and throw it away. I never remember to do that, but we do try to pick up any trash and throw it away if there is a place to throw it. I never worry about germs either and ad we never carry around hand sanitizer. I've never really worried about it. I can't really think of a single disease one can get from picking up trash

  10. Heather

    I did costume design for a small black box theatre in Atlanta. They had stadium seating with just enough space between the risers that all kinds of stuff would slide under there. My youngest was a small, squirrely 7 year old who LOVED to climb around under the risers and LOVED bragging that it was his job to keep the theatre clean. He also loved handing out programs and working the concession stand in the lobby. As a single mom my theatre jobs really helped the budget and being able to keep the kids busy while I worked was a huge blessing. I also ran the front of the house when needed (which was a lot) DiDi Conn's (Frenchie from Grease) mom was one of our biggest supporters and she used to say that it didn't feel like a trip to the theatre if I wasn't there to greet her with one of my kids. I wish I could say he was still into picking up trash… notsomuch.

  11. The calling station

    Hi, This is semi-random but I am wondering since you arent affraid of germs, how often your kiddos get sick? I am deathly terrified of the things….I am always saying ''dont touch that'' and constantly wiping things down in public places….are all my efforts and stress over avoiding sickness in vain?! Does it really make a difference?

    • Kendra

      My kids really don't get sick much. I think it's kind of a the chicken or the egg thing. Do my kids not get sick because I don't worry about germs? Or do I not worry about germs because my kids don't get sick? I don't know. But I don't worry about germs or wiping or sanitizing things and my kids are rarely sick and have never had anything serious. I hope I didn't just jinx it.

    • Joy Beyond the Cross

      When I was pregnant with my 1st daughter (2011), I listened to an interview on NPR radio with an immunologist, an allergy doctor, and someone else (can't recall) and the topic was the rise in food related and other types of allergies in the US. Although they were clear to point out that they didn't exactly know why (meaning not a lot of studies had been done or hard empirical data I guess) and they were only surmising, but they said that kids who grew up on farms and were exposed to what we consider more "germy" environments typically had fewer allergies. Their theory was that because they were exposed to germs in the normal course of their daily lives from the beginning, their immune system developed at a normal pace. My husband grew up on a cattle farm and when I told him what I heard, he said "well, that settles it, this kid is going to spend a lot of time at the farm and we can even have her walk barefoot through the manure pile." Okay, she hasn't literally done that, but we do spend a lot of time over there and anecdotally, not any of his 7 siblings, nor any of the 12 grandchildren that frequent my in-laws farm have any allergies that I am aware of. Totally anecdotal evidence, but just thought I would share our experience as I don't worry about germs very much either. I figure it is just helping her immune system develop. She has rarely gotten sick in her 2 1/2 years. But, yeah, I am hoping I haven't jinxed that now as well. 🙂

  12. Anonymous

    I love this, LOVE the message you're letting sink in to your kids by letting them pick up trash. But I have a serious concern. I know a number of women who have found used syringes at playgrounds. In nice-ish, suburban areas. I have not, but I have found used condoms. Lovely, isn't it? I don't let my kids pick up trash because they can't differentiate between trash that is and is not "safe." And I'm not about to follow them around the playground. How would (have) you handle(d) this situation?

    • Kendra

      I think it comes down to a risk-reward assessment, at least for me. There is a risk of my child encountering super gross or dangerous trash. But, even encountering it is pretty low. Then maybe he'll pick it up, maybe he won't. Then, for it to go from gross to dangerous, the condom or syringe would have had to be used by someone with a communicable disease. Recently enough for the virus to still be alive. Then my child would have to actually get stuck with the needle or broken glass of the syringe or actually get bodily fluids from the condom into an open wound. Then, even if all that happened, and he was exposed, he would still have to contract the disease.

      There is a risk, but it's so small that to me it's just not worth worrying about.

      I don't have numbers or anything, but I'd imagine he's as likely to be seriously injured on the play equipment, and much more likely to be injured in or by a car on the way there or back.

      It's easy for me to say, because I'm not naturally a worrier about risks like that.

      But for me, the rewards of playing at the park and of helping our fellow man and of learning good stewardship outweigh the small risks, that I acknowledge are there.

      So, the way I handle it is the way I handle everything else, which is just to hope for the best. But I know not everyone would be comfortable with that. So you can always help your fellow man by doing something I'm uncomfortable with, like making phone calls.

  13. Becky

    Your perspective is so refreshing. I just sent my four young kids (7, 5, 5, 3) down the block by themselves to pick peaches. I actually thought to myself, "Kendra would let her kids do this and I don't think she's a negligent parent." It brings a lot of freedom deciding you don't hAve to worry about every little thing. Great post, as always.

  14. Madeline

    Interesting, my toddler doesn't seem to notice trash but it is interesting perspective for if/when that starts. When I worked at a day camp in a public park we often cleaned up trash the one rule was the kids couldn't pick up cigarette butts. (And one time I wouldn't let a kid pick up a used certain contraceptive item for obvious reasons.)

  15. Nanacamille

    I have spent my entire working career picking up people's trash and telling them, "Thank you" for letting me take it from them. I guess you can say I do trash very well. Kendra's 2nd grade Brownie troop did a service project for I Love a Clean San Diego and you picked up weekend trash at Mission Bay Park. Those disposable gloves weren't available yet so we were going to do it by naked hand. Most were ok with it but one little Brownie came with gloves that looked like professional biohazard waste protection. The other girls talked her out of them and she ended up having fun like the rest of us. A good hand washing and picnic made it a fun and helpful day.

  16. Nanacamille

    PS trash on the ground is at toddler level so it's not surprising that they want to pick it up and see what it is. Why not then put it in a trash can. Good idea Kendra

  17. Мaria

    Oh, good post! I like the affirmation that comes from someone else refusing to.use hand sanitizer ;] (I agree that more exposure to low grade germs and such is a great way to strengthen the immune system, ours are pretty healthy as well) but also I like your point about your kids. I'm often too proud to admit such things, but any encouragement to get over it is appreciated! Thanks for that! :]

    Maria (reader of about a year and agree-er with much of your sentiments who us awful at commenting and, apparently, introductions – hi!(

    • Мaria

      Yep ;]

      (oh, and pretend those periods and backwards parentheses and us vs. is mistakes aren't there!)

  18. The Scarlett family

    It sounds like many families have some form of a trash pick up apostolate. When our children were younger, my husband would take them on evening walks that evolved into bringing the wagon and a plastic bag. They called them Garbage Walks. If your family does something similar, it might be good to get a real syringe and some broken glass shards and show the children ahead of time. They could be told that only a grown-up should pick up dangerous items.

  19. Elizabeth Anne

    Awesome! I think it is great that you let your kids do that! I like to pick up trash as well but one day I was hiking and I kept picking up "napkins". Then I realized they were probably toilet paper! lol It was funny but I still have not given up the apostolate, I just take a moment to realize what it is I am picking up!

  20. Amy Caroline

    Being such a large family (going on 9 kids) I am acutely aware of the mess we can leave in our wake. It has always been a family motto that we leave a place nicer than when we got there. It's not always possible, lol, but whenever we see trash we pick it up, ours or not. I have happily noticed that my older kids do it without even thinking about it whenever we are out.

  21. Lauren @ Breaking the Mold

    Once again, there you go making excellent points… 🙂 I am SUCH a germaphobe. My husband receives hand-washing lectures from me multiple times a day (you'd think he learned something by now!), and I can only imagine how bad I'll be whenever there are children in the picture. With that being said, it is indeed our job to care for the environment we have been given, and I think it's great that you allow your children to do just that. I'll just have to figure out a way to tote soap and water everywhere we go instead…

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

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