A thoughtful kid's conundrum: Is it bad to play with trucks when real trucks use oil?

Digging in Iceland

My nine-year-old son, Julian, asked me an interesting question yesterday.

"Is it bad for Zeke to play with trucks?"

Julian's younger brother, Zeke, turned three this week, and most of Zeke’s birthday gifts this year were some sort of toy version of a gas-powered vehicle.

He just loves trucks. And cars. And motorcycles, and garbage-trucks, and excavators and diggers and load-lifters and all kinds of other stuff I don’t know anything about. (He used to love airplanes, too, but then one day he seemed to have a vision of them dropping “fireworks” on us, and now they absolutely terrify him, to the extent that he doesn’t like hanging out on the deck anymore, or with any doors or windows open. It’s a little crazy, but that’s another story.)

“Isn’t it bad that Zeke likes trucks so much?” Julian asked.

“Why?” I asked

“Because they use oil,” Julian said, “and using oil is bad. So shouldn’t we want Zeke to not play with trucks?”

I’ll admit that I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the same thing over the past year or two, but I still didn’t have a good answer for Julian. Zeke and Julian aren't allowed to play with police toys. We don't have any military toys in the house, and no guns. I've definitely felt the conflict in reading Zeke books about construction equipment tearing into the Earth to make paved roads and big buildings and whatnot.

But at a certain point, kids get to play with trucks, right? Right? I don't know. What lines do we draw, and where do we draw them?

In talking to Julian, I basically justified Zeke’s interest in trucks as being acceptable using the same flawed “logic” that lets me keep driving my gas-powered car every day: I cover my eyes, cover my ears, and convince myself that tomorrow is the day I’ll start more fully living out my values.

I spent almost six weeks in Standing Rock this past winter in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Julian, Zeke and their mom joined me there for 10 days in December as well, and through this experience Julian has spent more time discussing and considering the merits and dangers of oil consumption in America than most people, let alone most elementary school students.

Standing Rock blizzard

In fact, Julian lived for nearly two weeks during North Dakota blizzards in a “yurt” some burners had made out of styrofoam insulation boards. It was exciting, but it was no picnic. He knows we did this for a reason. And now I think he’s sensing that we’ve backslid. Or that we’re not quite putting our time and energy and money where our mouth is.

At its core, Julian asks an extremely rich, important question.

Why do we do things that conflict entirely with our beliefs? That go fully against our values?

Why would we have given and risked so much to go to Standing Rock if only to come back and resume our full support of the oil industry?

And from there it hints at even bigger questions...

Can we solve the world’s problems if we don’t know ourselves? Can we change the world if we ourselves remain unchanged? Can we heal the world if we ourselves remain broken?

When will we stop supporting the systems that oppress us?

I don't know. That's a good question.