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.


Sometimes Bad Guys are real

We’ve spent a lot of time this past month watching the classic animated tale, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” It is not entirely pleasurable for my children. The Grinch scares them, but they cannot look away. They are mesmerized by him.

When my older daughter claims she sees a pair of red eyes outside the window, we say, “No, honey, grinches aren’t real.”

When she says she can’t go upstairs alone because a grinch might “get her,” we remind her again that grinches aren’t real.

On Friday afternoon, as I sat listening to the radio in the car, hearing the President’s reaction to the mass murders at an elementary school in a small town in Connecticut, my children asked, “What happened, Mom?”

And I told them, “A bad guy walked into a school and hurt some people.” And immediately, Scout said, “But bad guys aren’t real, mommy.”

And I thought to myself, Yes, they are.


I am grateful for my Grinch-loving girls. Their youthful innocence helped me get through that day. But I did tell them last Friday that sometimes Bad Guys are real. They didn’t seem shocked by that revelation. I tried to use the simplest version of the truth, but in time I know these conversations will become more difficult as inch by inch the underbelly of the world is revealed.

Prayers to Newtown, prayers of love, comfort and peace. Answers may never come, and even if they do, what good are they to a parent who lost his or her child? To the daughter who lost her mother? To the husband who lost his wife? They don’t care if it was gun control, mental health or a poorly-settled conflict to blame–they want their loved ones back. No answer to the question “Why did this happen?” can give them that. If you are interested in reading more on the reaction to the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary and the loss of so many innocent people, here are a few posts that gave me support. I hope they can help you, too, if you seek that. (If you know of others, please add  them to the comments.)

From  Virginia, Psalm 23

From Kenneth Todd, (at Virginia’s suggestion) Tiny Angels

From Mostly Bright Ideas, New Town

From Maria, Sandyhook Requiem

From the Anarchist Soccermom, Thinking the Unthinkable (you may have seen this one circulating)

A list of the victims names, if you wish to pray for them by name, and this piece with a short bio of  some of the victims

From Julie at George. Jessie. Love,  What I Want & What I Cannot

For those of you sending your children to school Monday morning, or going to work at a school Monday morning, I wish you strength.

Parks, parents and pet peeves

The other day, my kids and I made good on a playdate that was all-summer-long-in-the-planning. Since we hit the park on Labor Day, I believe we met some unannounced goal of having a playdate before summer was over. It was a great day, with beautiful weather. We picnicked at this huge park with endless equipment, green space, and even a fabulous splash park.

You know, we were just hanging at the park, something like this… only no teeter-totter and less cartoony. (image from

However, it was very interesting because I got an eyefull of people watching. People watching is fascinating, isn’t it? Especially as a parent. Who among us hasn’t cast a glance at the mother losing her temper in the grocery store (that’s me) or the parent scooting junior into bathroom with a brisk hand (also me)? Everyone out there has his or her own style when it comes to parenting. And it’s personal. Surely, my style is not for all parents–nor would it work for all kids. I mean, come one, it usually doesn’t even work for my own kids. That being said, I thought I might have a chat with a hypothetical parent out there.

Dear Park Parent,

We are at a park together, enjoying the day and letting our kids frollick and play. On a good day, I can tolerate all sorts of behavior and chalk it up to, “Aw, everybody has an off day.” However, more and more, I am realizing that I am not a patient person when it comes to certain behaviors. So, can we chat?

Would it be possible for you to keep track of your kiddo? I’m okay with an occasional out-of-sight scenario, but when your daughter followed my kids and their friends (and me and another adult!) to the far reaches of a huge park, I got a bit concerned. Did you have any idea that she had walked about a quarter of a mile from where you sat? Do you have first-hand knowledge that I’m a safe person for her to walk off with? (I mean, I am, but how would you know?) I really became alarmed when I observed your daughter hanging out with the rather odd man who had pulled up a lawn chair next to the playground and was allowing kids to hold his parrot and check out his lizard. Your daughter might be a budding zoologist, or maybe she’s about to be kidnapped–let’s hope it’s the former!

Secondly, can you try teaching your darling child some basic manners? Your daughter picked up my daughter’s yogurt tube and claimed it for her own, then picked up my other daughter’s juice box and quenched her thirst. (Which was odd, since I saw all those Chick Fil-A wrappers on your blanket.) Additionally, she continued to try to walk off with my daughter’s friend’s toy after we’d repeatedly asked her not to. We even caught her going through our belongings to look for said toy after we’d walked away from our stuff. Persistence is amazing, but maybe you could channel that energy into soccer or stamp collecting, not petty larceny.

For instance, I think your daughter looked something like this. (from tumblr)

I’m sure to others this must seem petty, and maybe I should have had this conversation with you while I was at the park the other day. I realize that “it takes a village” and all that, but I’d always assumed that it meant that the village steps in for me when I can’t manage it all… not while I sit on the blanket visiting with my peeps. I want to think the best of most people, so I’ll guess that I caught you on an off day. (Only I am pretty sure that’s not true or your daughter wouldn’t be so darn willing to just plop herself down with other families and make herself at home by sitting in strangers’ laps.) In the interest of safety and because you couldn’t beat the former child advocate out of me with a stick, I will tell you that children who show no fear around strangers are bound to be taken advantage of by the wrong person. Please love your child enough to take the proper care of her before she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yours in sincere parenting support,


*I’d welcome any and all critiques and thoughts on this letter. Perhaps you have written a similar letter. (I just hope it isn’t to your next-door neighbor.)