Adapted from a recent online discussion:
DEAR CAROLYN: Volunteering at a local homeless shelter a few months ago, I “clicked” with a sweet, funny, smart 9-year-old girl who was staying there with her dad. I don’t know the whole story, but her mom, for a variety of sad and scary reasons, hasn’t been part of her life for the past several years. Still, her unemployed dad has done a wonderful job of keeping her safe, secure and happy despite incredibly difficult circumstances, and They have a close and loving relationship.
He also recognizes that she was missing out on a “mom” relationship, so he’s been open and encouraging of my spending time with her, painting pottery, making jewelry, going swimming – things she doesn’t have much/any opportunity to do.
My time and involvement have sharply increased here recently because her dad was badly injured in an accident. It may be a shortish-term situation until he recovers, but in the meantime, I’m paying for a great after-school program for her and driving her home afterward each day. More often than not, I get her something to eat, and I have used her dad’s food-stamp card to get them groceries.
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This is all just so informal that I wonder if there are some guidelines I should be aware of – how much is too much? Am I fostering a dependency? Setting her up for a hard crash if her mom comes back on the scene? Am I just exposing her to a lifestyle she may never be able to achieve?
Full disclosure: I wasn’t able to have children of my own, but it’s a loss I have struggled to come to terms with. I have a loving relationship with my two wonderful stepchildren, who are both in college now, but the friendship with this little girl meets some of my own needs, I think. I’d just like to be sure I’m not simply meeting my own needs and inadvertently doing her a disservice somehow.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: It’s hard for me to see anything wrong with showing you care about a little girl to whom fate has been cruel – as long as you recognize that you can’t be careless with her attachment to you.
To ease your mind, though, is there a social worker affiliated with the shelter with whom you can discuss your concerns? And pardon my inner darkness – shelter kids are so vulnerable, and the system so overwhelmed, that such an “informal” arrangement could come back to bite one or all of you. Making sure the parties in charge are aware of the extent of your involvement is the responsible thing to do.
It is also wise to keep in mind what level of attention you can sustain, because you don’t want to be the latest person to disappear on her.
“Exposing her to a lifestyle she may never be able to achieve,” though, is a worry you can cross off your list. Seeing what’s possible is part of what makes it possible. Plus, in my experience, people never forget how it feels for someone to care about them. Even if the source of that care goes away, for whatever reason, people remember how it felt to be important to someone. Everyone should have that feeling. That alone is a beautiful gift.
Email Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org.