Small and I were at the mall today enveloped in consumerism, surrounded by homogeneity and comforted by grease masquerading as “meals.” Don’t get me wrong. I love to shop. But in a nod to our reduced income over the last year, I have made an effort to avoid places that might tempt me to hand over the plastic.

I discovered today that my not-so-silent struggles to embrace a level of frugality I once eschewed have made an impression, however slight.

As Henry munched happily on his bribe (“If you behave yourself while Mommy tries on these swimsuits, we’ll go to the food court for lunch.”), the frosted blonde sitting at the next table over began rummaging in her large Coach handbag. Coins clanged on the linoleum. Henry froze. “She dropped money!” he mouthed at me. “I’ll get it!” He was out of his chair in an instant and onto the floor.

I made a split-second decision not to point out his unsanitary choice. In that same moment, I overheard the woman murmur to her ringletted, preschool-aged daughter, “It’s just loose change. Leave it.”

But there was no calling him back. For 1) he has adopted his older brother’s selective hearing tendencies and 2) I had already resolved to roll with the situation.

And that is how I ended up watching my four-year-old do the army crawl through flecks of ketchup, bits of lettuce and the mushed remains of an errant french fry or two underneath a strangers’ table at the food court.

Within seconds, he had cheerfully deposited one penny, two dimes and a quarter on the table next to the daughter. The mother barely looked at him when she thanked him. Completely unperturbed by her overly bright tone, he registered only her two-word expression of gratitude. My gratitude was for my compassionate son and his social inexperience.

His brown eyes gleamed with self-satisfaction as he returned to his seat. I leaned forward. “That was a very kind thing you did. You’re very helpful. Thank you.”

Smiling, he returned his attention to his uneaten McNuggets.

Germs be damned. I didn’t remind him to wash his hands.

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