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Crying over spilled water: Raising toddlers during a drought

LOS ANGELES -- On a recent sweltering Saturday afternoon, I submerged my guilt and filled the bathtub halfway for my 3-year-old twins to play in.

It was their first bath in months. The early childhood rituals of spiky-haired tub photos and endless play in lukewarm bath water are foreign concepts to our two girls, who were born in 2011 at the beginning of an epic drought in California that shows no sign of abating.

I told them this was a treat - an exception to the five-minute shower rule strictly enforced by my husband - and reveled in their delight as they pretended to be mermaids, floated and splashed each other with glee. Then, my husband got home and they ratted me out.

"Daddy! Daddy!" one shouted. "Mommy says it's a special day and we can play mermaids, but really she's just wasting water and killing fish!"

I was about to remind her no one likes a tattle tale, but then I stopped.

After all, isn't this the moment every parent of a toddler hopes for? The moment when your child projects beyond him or herself, when they understand their impact on the bigger world around them?

Ever since they could talk, my husband and I had harped, hammered and cajoled them about the consequences of wasting water when there just wasn't enough to go around. And here it was, the lesson we had tried so hard to teach them sent back to us with surprising clarity and simplicity.

Really, it's no surprise. Our daughters' short lives have been shaped by water - or the lack of it - from potty-training to playtime to daily routines like brushing teeth.

They take great delight in yelling at us when we don't let yellow mellow (they ALWAYS do) or when we dump a half-consumed glass of drinking water down the drain.

After weeks spent trying to get my other daughter to turn off the faucet while brushing her teeth, I caught her one morning wiping a huge glob of neon-pink toothpaste off her brush with a tiny square of toilet paper.

When I chided her, she looked at me like I was crazy and said, "But Mommy, I don't want to waste water. I don't want Gov. Brown to yell at me!"

Cute quotes aside, California's water shortage is tangible to them. They don't have "water play" Fridays at preschool anymore. We let the pansies and geraniums we planted together in the spring wither and die. And we wash our cars so rarely that they were terrified when we drove through a car wash for the first time recently.

California drought takes steep toll on farmers 01:54

Of course, the drought's impact on our daughters' lives is inconsequential compared to California farmers who are losing a livelihood, the residents who have lost homes due to drought-fueled wildfires or to the millions of children worldwide who don't have clean drinking water at all.

But that's one reason that the drought's impact here, superficial as it may seem, is critical to teaching a life lesson: The way you live touches the world.

Our water discussions about the drought have spawned conversations about waste of all sorts, from using too much toilet paper (another favorite toddler topic) to how plants grow to where our food comes from. We aren't preachy or ascetic. We're just matter-of-fact - because they will likely grow old in a world that's much hotter and much more crowded, where people compete for resources we now take for granted.

I grew up in an old farmhouse in central New York that had only a well for household use. I remember as a child sometimes going to the locker rooms at the school where my mother taught to take showers toward the end of the summer, when the well ran dry, and filling gallon milk jugs to take home to flush toilets and brush teeth.

To this day, leaky faucets and running water get under my skin. I can't rest until the tap is off.

I don't know that our daughters will inherit such a mental tick. But I do hope that, as adults, they will remember being mermaids in a world that was much bigger than them.

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