We were watching a Cycling Tour on TV yesterday and my 4.5-year old son saw that after having drinks or chocolates those cyclists were throwing the empty bottles/wrappers on the roadside.

I absolutely know that this is not littering and it's a professional event where they have already made arrangements to pick up all the trash left behind and that the cyclists can not stop or slow down to dispose those off properly.

How do I convince my son about that? He says they can keep them in the pockets on their back just where they took them out from. I don't want to tell him it's OK to do so (because he is a child and will try to duplicate the behavior when he is out cycling - at this point he does not know about a professionally arranged race).

16 Answers 16

up vote 171 down vote accepted

So... I've raced bikes and from my experience, they are probably littering. As much as a race organizer may try to clean up after a race the distance covered and volume of waste generated during a race means trash is spread along hundreds of miles and clean up is not going to be 100% effective. Those racers are probably also practicing sanctioned littering.

My recommendation of what to tell your son would be to explain that what they are doing is wrong. It shouldn't happen - regardless of the reasoned nuances that we can come up with.

How I would frame it would be that you, his father desires for him to be better in every way than those racers. You want him to be faster, stronger and smarter, but you also want him to be kinder, more thoughtful and responsible than what is depicted on screen. That means that he rides, trains and studies hard but also picks up after himself, and doesn't leave trash out on the road.


EDIT

Thanks to @doppelgreener for the insight that expanded my own perspective.

I realise that I may be presumptive with my suggestion that you desire specific qualities in your son when saying:

You want him to be faster, stronger and smarter...

The intention is not to say you want those things, but to recognize that there are qualities about the professional cyclists on the TV screen that a 4 year old boy finds admirable and desires to mimic. My thought is to not encourage a negative view of those positive traits but to encourage a more complete picture of desirable character not necessarily demonstrated on screen. Just like an actor.

I'm leaving the original phrasing for context and answer continuity.


EDIT 2

I made an unsupported claim that World-Class Athletes are probably littering. Rightfully challenged by @BSO Rider. There are no publicly available scientific studies, but there is a precedent for my claim. Feel free to read the following:

It's true that I haven't ridden professionally, but if environmental rules aren't being followed by a group of weekend warriors where the stakes are a beer and a high-five, you can bet that it's not being followed by professionals whose lives depend on results.

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    “You want him to be faster, stronger and smarter” — the OP doesn't say they want this, and I recommend not suggesting these expectations in your answer. A kid is still OK even if they aren't faster, stronger, and smarter than world class athlete; they're just a kid who cycles and they don't need those expectations placed on them. – doppelgreener Sep 10 at 13:53
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – anongoodnurse Sep 10 at 16:28
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    Please keep in mind that if you disagree with this answer, you can write your own answer which expresses your opinions. Thanks. – anongoodnurse Sep 10 at 16:29
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    How did you know that the parent is a father? – Ryan White Sep 15 at 12:33

What's important here is not the "littering" as such but that people are being responsible.

I presume you want your son to be a responsible person in general so I'd focus on that and if he isn't too comfortable with what "responsible" means yet feel free to substitute "good or bad" as appropriate.

TL;DR - Work with your son to see how hard it is to put an empty bottle back into your pocket compared to taking it out. Explain to him that because of this it would slow the racers down a lot so instead they arrange before the race for someone to come round after them and pick everything up again, hence the rubbish still ends up in the bin.

What we want to do is communicate this to your son in a way that he will understand how throwing your waste on the ground (littering in his eyes) can be done responsibly and to do so I recommend explaining it as an answer to his question; split into two part:

  • Why don’t they deal with their rubbish by keeping it in their pockets?
  • Why is it ok for them to deal with their rubbish by throwing it away?

Here is how I would approach it:

Yes, you’re right, the cyclists are throwing their bottles and chocolate wrappers on the ground but this is because putting it back in their pocket when empty is a lot harder than taking it out. Let’s give it a try and see how hard it is!

You can have him try this with a pair of jeans (or any trousers that have tight pockets) and his own bottle of water:


  • Put the water in his pocket for him and ask him to take it out and take a drink, he should manage this easily.
  • Then, place the water back in his pocket and ask him to do it again but this time he needs to put the water back in his pocket, he will likely struggle with this if his pockets are tight.
  • If he still finds it easy, or you really want to drive the point home, put the water back and ask him to try with 1 hand; with tight pockets a 4 year old should find this near impossible!
  • Finally, tell him you want him to do it on his bike whilst cycling down the street! Don’t make him do it of course, but hopefully he’ll make the connection himself as to just how hard that would be given how hard cycling is already!

Now that you have both agreed that it is really hard to put these items back in your pocket you can look at what they do instead and why it is ok:

Because the cyclists are focusing so hard on winning the race they cannot stop and put the bottles back in their pockets, they need to do something that will let them get rid of their bottles but keep them cycling really, really fast.

So what they do is all the racers agree to get a team of people to follow behind them, right at the back, and it is their job to collect up all the bottles and papers that are dropped. This way, even though the cyclists know throwing it on the ground is not a responsible thing to do, they have people that we don't see on the TV that go round afterwards and pick up all the things they have dropped.

If you end up in a big, important race one day then you might end up with one of these people there to help you as well. Until then though, you'll need to keep your own rubbish so you can get rid of it responsibly yourself, even if it means holding onto it during your race.

You might find that next time he is out on his bike he actually convinces one of his friends to be this person and I'd encourage this, it's part of learning through play and making sense of what he's learned.

If you see this though just make sure he knows that this rubbish has to be picked up so he has to pick someone he knows is responsible and will definitely pick it up. If he knowingly picks someone who will likely just leave it it's just as bad as him leaving it himself!


I'd take this approach because it combines multiple, well established methods of teaching and learning:

We have Positive Reinforcement - by praising and acknowledging the fact he knows littering in wrong and that he has managed to correctly identified people doing it (given his understanding at the time).

We have Learning Through Play - by turning the challenge of putting your water bottles back into your pocket which helps keep in engaged and make sense of what you are explaining to him.

And we have Parent and Child Sharing a Hobby Together - ok, you were doing this already by just watching the cycling together, but we can jump on the back of that (hopefully without sucking the fun out of it by making it educational!) to learn over something you are both passionate about which helps reinforce the 'lesson' and really make it stick.

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    @Wildcard, I do plan on tweaking things when I have a bit more time but would be interested to hear what in particular you don't like, I reckon my 4 year old would get it as is. If you have time let me know and I'll consider it in my adjustments. – RyanfaeScotland Sep 10 at 18:29
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    “It’s OK to litter if it’s hard to dispose of the rubbish responsibly” does not sound like a good message. – Roman Odaisky Sep 11 at 17:18
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    @RomanOdaisky Agreed. Good thing that isn't what my answer says. Or do you feel it does and if so what gives you that impression? – RyanfaeScotland Sep 11 at 17:26
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    In the first quote you said essentially “they do it because it’s hard” and it’s natural for a child to take this explanation as a valid excuse, especially if you go out of your way to perform a demonstration. (And to speak from experience, no, it’s not hard, even during XC races.) – Roman Odaisky Sep 11 at 17:28
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    @RomanOdaisky yeah, and then in the second part I say "it is ok because they have a system in place that ensures it is cleaned up." I think it is quite clear that the answer breaks it down into 2 parts, the why and the justification. If you are only going to look at the why part then of course you are going to end up with something skewed! – RyanfaeScotland Sep 11 at 17:42

I don't see any reason why you should condone this behaviour, even if it is allowed by the authorities. If your child is interested in making sure trash ends up in the appropriate place, or isn't generated at all, you should be encouraging that.

I think you're right. They should just put the garbage back in their pockets, shouldn't they? Maybe they'll get a penalty at the end of the race.

I don't think there's any reason to try to get into explaining why it's okay to litter sometimes when, in my opinion, it isn't. Although it's sometimes easiest to dismiss a child's point of view because they're young, sometimes they have the most insightful comments. It's okay to agree with them, even in the face of a society that has always done something another way.

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    Problem is that he will then start thinking of them as bad people who throw away trash and he will always associate that with them. I want him to keep his manners while still trying to not make him think those guys are actually as bad as common people littering around. – Hanky Panky Sep 10 at 13:44
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    Are you suggesting they aren't? – Ian MacDonald Sep 10 at 13:45
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    All I am suggesting that they have proper arrangements in place for clean up and somebody will pick it up quickly behind them. I am open to considering it littering and teaching him accordingly but I believed it wasn’t so. – Hanky Panky Sep 10 at 13:48
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    @HankyPanky - Also be prepared to explain how even though we have street cleaners that are paid to clean up after people who litter in normal circumstances that that isn't the same thing! – RyanfaeScotland Sep 10 at 13:58
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    @IanMacDonald I particularly like that with your phrase the father is also confirming the child's reasoning with a confirmation question and an example of a consequence. I would even add a final question for the child to critically think about this topic, "everyone is watching them, so why do they allow them to litter?" – CPHPython Sep 10 at 14:52

The situation for bottles and food wrappers is rather different.

Honestly, with food wrappers, your son is completely right: they're just littering. Food wrappers are tiny and weigh next to nothing. There's no reason at all they can't just stuff the used wrappers back in their pockets. Obviously, with 150 cyclists each trying to dispose of multiple wrappers, there will be accidents, but there's no reason to just throw them on the ground. Some races such as the Vuelta a Espana specifically have "litter zones" where the riders can throw their accumulated rubbish on the ground and people will sweep it up; of course, some of it gets lost, especially on windy days.

With bottles, things are a bit more complicated. They are relatively large and a racer will need more of them each day than they can carry on the bike. Often, they throw away the old bottle when they get the new one, and the person who handed them the new bottle can tidy up the discarded ones. In many cases, the riders will dispose of empty bottles in areas where there are crowds, and the spectators pick them up as souvenirs. One of the leading bottle brands (Elite Corsa) is biodegradable so, in theory, any discarded bottles will just rot away; in reality, though, I bet that takes years and years, since they have to be strong enough to not biodegrade while they're being used! There's the extra complication that any bottles that are thrown away need to be thrown well clear of the road so they don't end up under another cyclists wheels; that must make retrieving them afterwards essentially impossible.

So, parenting-wise, I suggest agreeing with your son about food wrappers, because he's right. Have a discussion with him about bottles: there are pros and cons and mitigating factors, and the situation is complicated by the riders needing to drink more than they can carry, to avoid dehydration.

If you're worried about him copying the pros and littering while riding his own bike, my guess would be that he'll be fine. He already feels that littering with food wrappers is wrong, and he'll probably feel that his bottle is a possession he doesn't want to lose – especially if he got it from one of his heroes at a race!

  • As always, your answer is really nice. – Hanky Panky Sep 11 at 13:34
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    That's very kind of you. :-) Actually, I thought it had completely bombed because nobody had voted on it. But then I realised I'd written it and failed to click the post button! – David Richerby Sep 11 at 13:35
  • I agree with most of this, especially pointing the child to the littering zones and collecting of the bottles by spectators. I am used to this from skiing where too much of the litter is only found in the spring after the snow melts and it is ugly then. One can be disqualified for littering from nordic races like the Birkenbeinerrennet. But there are strong reasons not to keep those in your pockets. The energy gels flow from the tube and make those pockets really disgusting. And for many outdoor sports outside cycling, one actually does not have any pockets. – Vladimir F Sep 11 at 15:24
  • @VladimirF Don't waste so much gel! :-) I find a good technique is to roll up the wrapper from the bottom, which squeezes the gel out. Cycling recreationally, I've never had a problem putting used gel wrappers back in my pocket. The jersey's going to get washed at the end of the day, too. – David Richerby Sep 11 at 15:38

A grandmother here! Remember to always make your answer age appropriate:

  • First, be so impressed that he verbalized a bad behavior
  • Next, just point out the differences that he asks about-no need to bore him with over explaining (Professional racers, Professional organizers, Paid to race, Volunteers to help clean)
  • Bring your own experience in, “Mommy/Daddy ran that half marathon and people handed out water in cups that the runners threw on the ground, but the volunteers cleaned it all up.”
  • When he seems satisfied, remind him that when you and him ride, or run, or hike, there aren’t volunteers following along to pickup afterwards, and he isn’t getting paid to play! It’s still his job to not litter.

He sounds like a great kid! Good luck!

It's not littering for the same reason you do your son's laundry.

The cyclist's team is more than just the cyclist. The cyclist's role is to pedal like crazy, the coach's job is to coach. The event organizers, police, volunteers and janitorial staff all have their roles too.

In your family, it's your role to care for your son and it's your son's job to learn at school.

You could use this as a good life-lesson for him.

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    Hi and welcome! Can you please expand on the laundry = *not littering* analogy? I'm not quite following. – anongoodnurse Sep 10 at 16:43
  • The cyclist is not a team of one. Many people are involved and have to work together. He rides the bike because he's the best at it. Somebody else cleans up his bottles/wrappers so he can do his role. If this was just "some guy" riding down the road, then yes, it would be littering. – Robert Paulsen Sep 11 at 18:23
  • That doesn't help me, but thanks for the response. – anongoodnurse Sep 11 at 18:44
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    @anongoodnurse I think the connection is that the parents help out their kids by doing their laundry so that the kids can go to school, play, etc. The event clean-up crew helps out the cyclists by cleaning up after them so that the cyclists can do their job, which is going as fast as possible. Just because the kid doesn't do his own laundry doesn't mean he doesn't care about cleanliness; similarly, just because the cyclist's trash doesn't go directly into a can doesn't mean it's littering. – Cullub Sep 17 at 12:49

As requested, just posting my comment as an answer:

I don't see the harm in agreeing with your son!

If he becomes a professional cyclist and his performance is being hampered by holding onto or going back to pick up rubbish, then you could take him aside and explain to him that in certain circumstances it might be excused ;)

No need to over-complicate things while he is still 4, though. It's probably more important that he keeps the notion that you shouldn't litter. He may even enjoy the thought that he is more morally adjusted than a bunch of grown-ups on TV!

doesn't this risk OP's son having an unfair belief that cyclists are people who litter?

It's not something I'd be worried about, it's probably not as bad as the belief that it's OK to litter. But if you get him cycling, then that should help with any anti-cyclist prejudices he may have...

Use this as a pretext to develop problem-solving skills. Cyclists need food/water on a regular basis and need to take it from a bike running at a high speed. There is a real problem faced by professionals and amateurs, that is currently solved in this way:

  • Cyclists are provided with bottled water and wrapped food during the race. A cyclist only needs the water and the food, but the total ammount of trash (bottles, plastics) required for the duration of the whole race becomes a serious burden to the cyclist, so he needs to hand-it/trash-it as soon as possible.

Can it be solved in any other way?

How can they be hydrated and fed without burdening their cycling capabilities?

  • Brilliant. Love the idea. – Hanky Panky Sep 13 at 10:06
  • Love that you addressed the OP's question so directly. Welcome to the site! – anongoodnurse Sep 13 at 16:50

My speech, obviously to be altered depending on the specific circumstances:

"Joey, littering is when you leave things like trash behind without permission.

Permission is important. It makes a lot of things that would be wrong, not wrong. Permission doesn't make everything all right, but it does make some things all right.

Remember the church picnic? You went up to the table for another cookie. That wasn't wrong, because the people at the picnic had permission to eat the food. But if you went up to a friend and took his cookie away, that would be wrong, because you wouldn't have permission.

At that race, the riders had permission to drop their trash. They dropped it, and after the race, people came along and cleaned it up, and everything was clean again. That was part of the race, just like the food is part of the picnic.

Now, YOU can't drop trash when you ride your bike, because you don't have permission, and there's nobody to come along behind you and clean up that trash. Someday--who knows?--you might be part of a bike race like that. But until that happens, and until someone tells you it's all right to drop your trash, it's not OK, because you don't have permission."

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    Good first answer! Welcome to Parenting.SE! – SomeShinyObject Sep 14 at 0:20
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    Permission and consent is important to learn about, and not just in the context of littering. – gmatht Sep 14 at 4:46

There different rules for different times and places

Your son probably already knows that the rules at kindergarten or at other people's houses are different from the rules at home, or that some activities are allowed inside but not outside.

"No littering" is a general rule, but on some occasions like cycle races there is a different rule. You can go into the reasons why they need to have a different rule ("they don't have time to throw away their rubbish in the proper place") and why they can ("they've paid a race fee which pays for somebody else to pick up the litter", or whatever) if your son wants to know more.

The legal concept behind littering is knowingly leaving litter behind without permission. He can probably grasp that the cyclists' act intentionally knowing the race organizers will clean up behind them.

If that fails try demonstration - wait til race is over and observe.

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    Hi and welcome to Parenting.SE! Do they show people cleaning up the litter after bicycle races on TV? If not, how else to demonstrate it? – Anne Daunted Sep 10 at 17:36
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    Anne - they rarely show it on TV as it is not exciting (occasionally you see it behind commentators doing post race talks) so it would really be best being there in person. – Rory Alsop Sep 10 at 17:50
  • @RoryAlsop The commentators' post-race pieces to camera are usually done around the finish line area. Isn't the litter there much more likely to be from the crowd than the riders? – David Richerby Sep 11 at 12:36

You can explain to your son, that as part of the race people are paid to follow behind and pick up the rubbish.

BUT why can't the cyclists just put it back?

Your kid is 100% right. In his version of reality, those guys are littering, and it does not matter a bit whether it is allowed or not, or whether someone cleans up after the race.

I feel the need to stress the core of your question, which is the interaction between you and your son, not the legalities of the act witnessed on TV. 4 years is too young to make the decision of whether to litter or not depending on exacting details of the circumstances. He needs clear, simple rules - in case of littering, we just don't do it, no matter what.

You will be simplifying a lot of other things for quite some time, this is perfectly fine. After a few years, things can be explained in more detail. In my experience, children are very much able to comprehend at a later date when the easy rules of childhood are becoming more complex.

So, to answer your question: don't convince him that they're not littering. Agree that they are littering (because they are - they are throwing away that stuff; some of it will be blown into the vegetation and will not be cleaned up even if they do happen to have a clean-up team). You don't need to go into details here. A simple "yes, they are littering, and really should not be doing that!" would be just fine.

  • Honestly this is the best answer for a four-year-old. – barbecue Sep 17 at 13:40

You could explain something like the following:

As I pick up after you when you make a mess, because I am your parent, so are there people who pick up after the cyclists - because they run the event. As you grow up you won't leave mess. When they are cycling alone they shouldn't litter.

You explained the concept of littering to your son. And that's exactly what he sees the cyclists do.

First thing to do is to acknowledge that he got that right - if you tell him he's wrong while he knows perfectly well he's right, you're not making sense. While you're not making sense, you'll have a hard time teaching him anything, because he'll be stuck trying to argue that point.

Second thing to do is either one of these:

  • Tell him that the word "littering" is more complicated than you initially taught him, and thus what they do looks like littering, but isn't.
  • Tell him that littering under some circumstances can be ok, and explain the circumstances.

For fast readers: The above is either/or.

Then follow up with some examples. Restaurants might be good, because they are surprisingly tricky, and your son might already be familiar with them: If you have a cloth napkin, that isn't litter, and you leave it at the table. If you have a paper napkin and leave it on the floor, it is littering. And depending on the restaurant, you need to either leave the paper napkin on the table, or throw it in the trash. If you don't know which one it is, you can ask the waiter.

Then bring it to a close by getting back to the race: Tell him that some bicycle races have a designated waste zone of a few hundred yards, where racers are allowed to drop wrappers. But the exact rules depend on the race, and if you're at a race and don't know, you can ask a race official.

You don't need to manufacture consistency

You're overthinking this. Why would you want to explain it to your son?

There are different rules for different circumstances, and kids are entirely capable of understanding this.

The world is fuzzy. The riders are "allowed" to drop litter, but he is not. He is allowed to jump on the trampoline, but not on the sofa. His older brother is allowed to watch the movie, but he can't.

This is fine and fair, because he is a child.

Kids say and think strange things, but they grow out of them

When my son was little, he thought that it was impossible to have a swimming pool on board a boat. If we showed him pictures of an ocean liner with a swimming pool, he thought we had photoshopped it. When we showed him videos, he thought they were "made with a computer".

Now we laugh about it. We didn't need to explain it, we just needed to wait.

Children are humans

Humans deal with context all the time, we are built to inhabit a fuzzy environment. You don't need to make everything consistent for all people all the time everywhere.

The riders are allowed because they are on a TV race. Is he on a TV race? No. Then he can't do it.

He has a rule, don't drop litter. The riders apparently have a different rule. Different people have different rules at different times. This is fine and normal.

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    I'm surprised this answer isn't higher voted. It's a good opportunity to introduce nuane and say you "don't know", that it's "kind of strange" and "I wonder if". You could talk about why they do it (for speed), that people might pick up, etc. There's no need to be Wikipedia for the kid. They seem to react well to discussions like that even though we might thing fuzz is "advanced" (Parent of five year old). – user32571 Sep 14 at 10:26

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