My mom adventures in Fort Collins


One night in Santa Fe

I always envisioned raising my children with a sense of a bigger world. I want them to be philanthropic and service-oriented, volunteering their time and energy for those less fortunate. I want to instill in them a sense of social justice and what the Jesuits call, a “Preferential Option for the Poor.” I see in my daughters an open-minded, welcoming attitude that I want to nourish and encourage. I don’t want them to grow cynical the way that many of us do.

This idea of cultivating kind, equality-minded children is nothing new, but I think it is one of those parenting ideas that falls into the category of “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

Last week, we visited Santa Fe on our way back from a family vacation in Arizona. We checked into a hotel downtown around dinner-time, and set off to find pizza. Within four steps of leaving the hotel’s property, we were approached by a woman. The woman could have been 40-years-old or she could have been 65-years-old. She was petite in stature and had the rough skin of a person who has spent a great deal of time in the sun. Her blond hair was stringy and graying, and the gaze behind her filthy glasses appeared tired yet persistent.

“Excuse me, sir.” My husband and I shared a knowing glance.

In a rehearsed cadence she said, “I am sorry to bother you, but I am homeless. I need $20 to stay at the Motel 6. Could you spare some change?” She crossed the street with us in order to deliver her message.

Down the block, we heard a man holler back, “I’ve got it!” The woman didn’t appear to notice this, and we simply said that we don’t carry cash. She then proceeded to the next man traveling down the sidewalk and we overheard a similar exchange. Meanwhile, the man on the end of the block kept yelling back to her, “I’ve got it! I already got it!” The woman crossed the street and traveled in the same general direction as us. At the corner, the man who had been yelling at her all this time appears agitated, and I noticed he seemed years younger than the woman. He spoke loudly in her face, “I kept trying to tell you that we already got it!”

We tried to maintain our original trajectory: head to the pizza joint on the third floor of a building a mere block away from our hotel. However, my kind, sensitive six-year-old was absolutely overrun with emotion. She said repeatedly, with a lilt in her voice, “That woman didn’t have any home?” It was beyond her comprehension that someone could be wholly without a home. She was visibly distressed by this whole exchange.

Now, this incident could have happened here in Fort Collins, and it could have happened in any one of the communities where we have traveled. In fact, I’m certain that Scout has seen homeless folks before, she just may not have been approached directly by a person asking for money.

After we arrived at the pizza place, I needed to determine what, if anything, I could do to help. One thing was certain, she felt sad and helpless. Someone in this world didn’t have a place to sleep tonight and she felt awful. I said, “Honey, do you want to go back out there and find that woman and give her some money?” She looked confused, “BUT I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY, MOM!” And I said, “Well, I do, and Dad does, and maybe we could figure something out. How much money would you like to give this woman?” She thought for a second and said, “I think three dollars would be good.” I dug to the bottom of my purse, the exact thing I purposely avoided on the street when the lady asked for money, and I found my change purse with $11 cash in it. I handed Scout my single, and I suggested that her dad might have more. We found an additional two dollars and set out to find the homeless woman.

All this time, I did not acknowledge that homelessness is a complicated issue. I never said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to find her.” I didn’t try to diminish her quest by pointing out that I overheard her working with another guy and I suspected that they came up with whatever money they needed. I never apologized for the fact that I didn’t give the woman money when she originally asked, and Cory & I spoke after the fact that Scout must have realized that her parents had lied. In this earnest attempt to find this woman and allow my little girl a chance to contribute to a safe place for her to sleep, all I hoped for was to return to the restaurant $3 lighter. This was not about setting us free from the drama of a bereft six-year-old, this was just about making the attempt. Trying.

When we left the restaurant, we looked up and down the streets in every direction. We walked up to the corner, and, unfortunately, we never did find the original woman that set this entire story in motion. Across the street, I noticed a few folks sitting on benches in a small plaza. I had to give this a shot, and I figured if we could connect with someone–anyone–who needed the money, maybe my dear girl would be satisfied. I offered to approach this group of people and ask if they might know the woman. Scout pointed out that these people were strangers and she felt shy approaching them. I asked, “What do you want to do?” She looked downhearted and disappointed, and finally said, “Let’s go back to the restaurant.” I wasn’t thrilled with that option, and I felt that we could certainly find some reason to give somebody that $3.

Just then, I observed a man take the lid off a public trashcan and dig through the garbage. I assumed he was looking for food. I quietly said to Scout, “Did you see that? I just saw that man dig through the garbage. I think he is hungry. Why don’t we give him our money?” She nodded. “I guess that would be okay.”

I said, “Excuse me, sir.” He turned around, and I said, “Are you hungry?” He was scraped up,  and his skin was dry and red on his cheeks and nose. He said, “Almost always.”

To this man, who introduced himself as Chad, I explained our situation. “My daughter saw a woman on the street asking for money for a place to stay, and we tried to find her but we couldn’t. We saw you and thought you might like some money to buy some food.” He seemed genuinely touched, and he took the money from Scout and he took her hands in his hands, the same hands that were just digging through the garbage. Chad, this man that we met by happenstance after he quietly dug through a refuse bin, thanked Scout and said that he would never forget this.

We said goodbye to Chad and we crossed the street back to the restaurant. Scout was still fairly disoriented by what had just happened, and in her typical private manner, she did not want to discuss the events at the dinner table. At dinner that night, Cory suggested finding a volunteer opportunity for her.

Walking around downtown Santa Fe

Walking around downtown Santa Fe

Even the next day, she was upset when I brought it up. She caught me relaying part of this story over the phone to her grandmother, and she left the room because it was so concerning for her to hear all of these details again.

Since that night in Santa Fe, it still breaks her heart to think of the woman who didn’t have a home. We continue to talk about homelessness and hunger. I don’t quite know that I have the right words or suggestions. I have tried to explain to her that there are organizations that try to help people like the woman we saw on the street that evening. I told her that our family supports different organizations, though maybe we could do more. I said to her that even though she is young, there are ways to make a difference in the lives of others.

It’s a difficult chapter we’ve just begun. I want to encourage her spirit of caring for others, but allow her to see that homelessness is complicated and homeless people are a diverse bunch. There is no one way to expose your child to these worldly issues, but this feels like a very organic starting point.

What about you, reader? Can you relate to this story about my daughter’s first encounter with a homeless person? Do you have a story of your own? I’d love to thoughts on how to translate a child’s concerns into a positive contribution to the community.



There once was an age-appropriate bully

Yesterday morning, I spent time talking with some women that I know through my daughter’s preschool. Often, we talk about children, the school, being a parent and some of the struggles that go along with this journey. These are wise women, and I value their opinions. Today, a particular story was relayed, and the word “bully” came up. These women proposed that a four-year-old could not be a “bully.”

I did a bit of reading, and it appears that most people agree that a child of preschool age cannot be a bully. It’s actually age-appropriate for kids in this age group to act out when they don’t get what they want, and it differs from bullying because of our expectations. We know that children in early childhood are just beginning to learn how to appropriately interact with their peers, so we cut them some slack when they don’t share, hit, get stompin’ mad, kick, bite, manipulate, act aggressively, steal toys, exclude others, etc. We anticipate that young children are going to test out the training wheels as they go. Like a few adults I know, children are still learning these valuable social and emotional skills. It’s not necessarily acceptable for children to act like this, and we do need to encourage different behaviors, but it is age-appropriate. Basically, it’s preschool, and it’s one of the few safe places these children have to test out these behaviors (and then try again).

Nonetheless, this story and the word “bully” did trigger a memory for me. I myself have called a four-year-old a bully. I may not be completely accurate, but the definition of “bully” is

a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker

Yep…That about sums up a lot of little kids, doesn’t it?

Two years ago, my daughter Scout was a four-year-old in a Pre-K class of 18 kiddos. Of these kids, 12 were boys and 6 were girls. Perhaps the small number of girls led to some of the difficulties that arose, and like many a mom with a firstborn guinea pig before me, I went into this whole thing a bit naive. First, I got a report from a parent that I knew and trusted about some exclusionary play in the classroom by a specific little girl. Then, I was approached by a different parent, saying that she stepped in and reminded this little girl that we always let everyone play. I was reluctant to buy into these second-hand accounts, but as time went on I noticed some of this behavior myself. My daughters have both attended the same co-op preschool, and a benefit of the co-op model is that I’m often in and around the classroom and I can get to know their classmates quite well. The entire time that this exclusionary behavior was going on, my daughter would sing this little girl’s praises. She loved this girl. When I would pick Scout up from school, she’d be sure to point out what this little girl was wearing, or what toy this little girl had brought to share with the class.  For me, the culmination of this entire prolonged episode was when my daughter had created a picture for the girl and gave it to her as a gift. This little girl threw away the picture in front of my daughter at pick-up time. I saw the entire exchange, and the look on Scout’s face said it all. I looked in the bin and I looked at Scout. I said, “Honey, did you make that? Do you want to keep that?” Scout said, “Yes.” I pulled the item out of the garbage and reclaimed it. Then, this little girl stated without an ounce of guilt, “Wait, that’s mine!” I calmly explained that she threw it away and had forfeited her right to take the item home.

I went home that day hopped up on anger and pride. I knew what this little girl did to my daughter was wrong. Mean. Selfish. Nasty. I was so horrified, I don’t think that I knew what to say or do.

Then, suddenly I knew EXACTLY what to do. I was going to approach that little girl’s mom and invite them over for a playdate.

When I had worked for a children’s advocacy organization years earlier, I worked with an amazing woman. Peg had raised six kids, been aunt to many that were actually here nieces & nephews as well as countless others who had come across her path. Peg had worked with children in the child welfare system and juvenile justice system for years. Peg was a FRIEND of children. Not only did I trust Peg’s insight as a parent, I valued her life experience. I remember Peg telling me that when her kids complained about a child at school, she always listened. “So-and-so smells! She wears the same clothes every day!” “So-and-so is always so mean to me!” “I can’t stand so-and-so, he’s always making things difficult.” Pretty soon, she’d be inviting that kid–the kid that was so offensive to her own child–over for dinner.

Now, I don’t know that Peg was able to have every one of these children over for dinner–it would seem the invitee would have to accept the invitation. I do know that her approach changed my thinking on the subject. When my child is offended or hurt, my “Momma Bear” is awakened. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the hurt, I forget to question why Momma Bear got her heart broken in the first place: Love. I love my child, and when her heart breaks, mine does too. When you love someone, you want the best for them. I only wanted for my child to have a kind and safe friendship, one that didn’t make her feel left out.

By setting up a playdate with the little girl that had been excluding my child, I believe that I created two opportunities: 1) the kids could play and 2) I could chat with the mom. When  this little girl came over, she played nicely with both of my daughters. I do not recall anything inappropriate about the way that they interacted together. This gave me the chance to see that this little girl was just a typical five-year-old girl, with cute laughter and wide eyes. I stopped imagining her as the “Mean Girl” I had built her up to be. As for the mother, I learned more about their life and her story, and I felt a great deal of compassion for both mother and daughter. Everyone has a story. I never disclosed what had been happening in the classroom. I never confronted mother or daughter, and I tried to have faith that the as the story unfolded, I would know what to do.

Turns out, all I had to do was have a little girl over for a playdate. These girls didn’t go on to become best friends. We never wound up having another playdate, though the mom offered to have my kids over and it just never worked out schedule-wise. But the exclusionary behavior ended. Admittedly, these were girls in a Pre-K classroom. These were not middle schoolers being bullied for their appearance or sexual orientation. This approach is not the only approach, and it would not appeal to everyone, but the basic sentiment is the same: Instead of being offended and defensive, is there a space to be more vulnerable and loving?

Anytime you make yourself vulnerable, you allow for growth. Most of us don’t need to teach our kids how to be offended and defensive, that seems innate. But my daughter taught me something amid the exclusionary behavior. It was as if she didn’t have that sense of self-preservation that causes adults to recoil when we see such behavior. Despite being excluded and hurt, Scout still wanted this little girl to be her friend. So, I let this child of mine, with a heart so big it can scarcely fit in her chest, guide me. My grown-up sensibility would have said, “Just don’t play with this girl! She’s mean!” But Scout’s kind eyes saw what I couldn’t see–maybe this girl was just a little girl, a little girl who was acting in an age-appropriate and yet unacceptable manner. Maybe I needed to give this girl Forever Chances. Maybe there is always room for more love, more growth.

What about you? Do you have a story about love and growth? Did anyone ever surprise you by just being a five-year-old afterall?