The smell was horrible. I knew immediately it was the two men shopping near us, one in a wheelchair, the other with a small dog on a leash. No matter where we stood, anywhere within a few feet radius of them and their pungent body odor smell hit us. By the looks of them, I assumed they were homeless, maybe part of the nearby encampment.
I had been grocery shopping at Trader Joe's with the girls in tow. My wife Amy was away doing a Kidpower training for the day. The girls and I were finishing up the shopping when our oldest, Beatrice, frowned and wrinkled her nose.
"What's that smell?" she said, a little loudly. Our youngest, Bryce, seemed oblivious and ready to be done with shopping.
"Shhh," I said. "I know it smells. Let's just finish up and get going."
"I know what it is. It's those poor people," she said, looking at the two men.
I didn't think they heard her, and I knew Beatrice was just saying what popped into her head without adult bias and judgement. We'd been talking about our local homeless situation with our girls since last fall, so she was equating homelessness with being poor, which wasn't wrong, but not all people who struggle to make ends meet are homeless. And we'd been there during the great recession, struggling and almost becoming homeless ourselves.
Later, when we were home and Amy was back from her Kidpower training, I brought up what happened to discuss as a family.
"What you said wasn't wrong, Beatrice. But the words weren't exactly right; not all poor people are homeless," I said.
Beatrice listened, but I could tell she thought she'd done something wrong.
Amy spoke up. "It's not about right, Beatrice. It's just about being respectful of how we address people we don't know and what's going on with them. You were just saying what you thought without trying to be mean, and that's okay."
"Okay," she said and nodded slightly.
"Right," I said. "And we don't want to say those things too loud so they can hear and make them feel bad. You were just making an observation to me."
"Yes, there are too many people without a home or shelter or running water, so they do smell because they can't take baths or showers like we can everyday," said Amy.
"This is why there are really important organizations in town that are doing there best to help homeless people," I said.
We went on with the rest of our day, but we didn't lose sight of the greater lesson. We talked about it again during our weekly family meeting to ensure that we respond appropriately and with respect in situations like the one at the grocery store and the homeless men, when we don't know them or assume to know their story based on what we see or smell.
And because the girls are getting older and more aware, we then expanded the conversation to include if they were with a friend who was talking badly about another person they knew, and trying to sway them into talking badly about the person. Amy role played with the girls on how they should respond and not to participate in the belittling of others just because we don't like them (when we may not even know them), or because someone else doesn't like them (when he or she may not even know them), or because we assume something about them when we really know nothing about them, only basing it on something we heard.
It's about time we start assuming otherwise.