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  • Writer's picturebryan hendley

When Helping Hurts

I grew up in an environment that encouraged helping. Probably many of us did, when it comes to some basics. We help with our siblings, we help get the groceries in from the car, we help clean up the toys we played with.If you were the older sibling, perhaps you were given an extra helping of helping. You may have been asked to help with watching your younger brother, change your sister’s diapers, or help clean up a mess that you didn’t create.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about several ways that helping can hurt.

When our children want help but don’t need it

We see this many times between parents and children, but it is also easily applicable to adults. I often see this in school as a teacher, and while I think the term “learned helplessness” is often misused, it certainly applies in some cases.

Some students, over time, have figured out how to get the answers they need with little to no work on the actual problem in front of them. Instead, they use their energy to ask creative questions, work themselves into a place of _____ (inducing, giving) frustration, and express total loss in their current predicament.

They can’t possibly solve this math problem without you. They need you to organize their notebook for them. They can’t study because there is no one to help them. Trying is not even an option, because they “just don’t understand”.

Somewhere along the way, this worked, and they decided to stick with it. It’s a dangerous proposition, a deadly skill to learn because it’s an awful thing to carry into adulthood. A mindset of needing someone else to step up for you, whenever things get tough, is not one that leads to success in life.

As parents, we often want to step in at the first sight of struggle, or “struggle”. Just like students can learn helplessness, so can our children. The major difference here is that when it’s our children, we can’t pass the blame on to anyone else. If our children learn helplessness, they probably learn it from us.

It’s often easier for us to help.

When our kid is struggling with their homework or having a hard time in class, and begging us to help, it’s easier to pick up the phone or fire off an email to blame or challenge the teacher than it is for us to teach our son or daughter how to navigate challenging situations on their own.

When we are trying to teach our kids how to do the laundry, and they spill detergent all over the floor, it’s much easier (and cleaner) for us to “help” so nothing like that happens again and we get our laundry done the way we like it.

Most of our kids, particularly when they are young, will take whatever help we’ll give them. At the same time, most of the situations our kids find themselves in when they are young, don’t warrant a need for our help.

Helping can hurt when we give it to someone who wants it but doesn’t need it.

Our children won’t learn how to solve their problems, manage conflict, and work through things that are challenging if we are always quick to step in for them every time they struggle or call on us for assistance.

Some of us do this with our adult relationships too. We might be naturally inclined to be a helper, or it makes us feel good to feel like we’ve helped, so we are always ready and willing to jump in when we see a friend who wants our help.

But it’s important to pay attention to wanting vs. needing. Adults can have learned helplessness too, and many do. Just because someone wants help, doesn’t mean they need it.

When we help someone who wants it but doesn’t need it, it’s often about us, not them. We want to protect our children. We don’t want our child to get a bad grade. We want the class session to move along. We don’t want anyone to feel bad. We want to save the day.

So we see someone who is asking for help, either literally or figuratively, and we step in, even though they may not need it.

When Our Children “Need” Help But Don’t Want It

We’ve all seen someone who is in “need” of help, but they don’t want it. I say “needs”, because I’m not talking about someone who is in danger or battling drug addiction. Although, I might argue that there are still instances like that where we can’t help people who don’t want it, no matter their circumstances.

“Needs” because we can see that they are struggling, and might be better off, in the short term, if we would step in and help. They are having a hard time solving a problem, completing a task, or overcoming a challenge, but, they want to figure it out on their own. We see that they “need” help, but they don’t want it.

As long as it’s a “need”, we need to let them figure it out on their own, especially when they don’t want the help. Stepping in here is about us, not them or their situation, and it robs our children of the wonderful benefit of solving the problem on their own. Even if it’s hard, especially if it’s hard, we need to let them sort through it.

One of the wonderful things that happen when we solve problems, overcome challenges, or even take one on the chin during challenging times and “lose”, is that we drop a mental/emotional/spiritual anchor in that spot. Later, when something related comes up, we’ll often remember those other times.

We’ll be able to say, “I know I can _____ because that one time I ______.” or “Last time I ______ and that didn’t work, so this time I’ll _______.” We don’t want their anchors to be Mom or Dad. You know, “I know that Mom can solve this, because every time ________ has come up, Mom has fixed it.”

When we do this, our children aren’t able to create an anchor point of their own. You can try and talk to them about the lesson after you solve it, but it won’t stick. Whenever possible, the pain of the lesson needs to be attached to the pride of sorting through it on their own, not the problem solving of parents.

Another problem with unnecessary parental problem solving, is our kids outgrow it all together at some point. Calling to speak to your child’s college professor or first boss, probably won’t work like it did when they were in grade school or high school. If we raise our children in a way that creates a dependency on our help, especially when it isn’t needed, we help create a crunch that they can carry forward in life that won’t truly support them.

In the long run, although we think we’re helping, it hurts.

Let Them Learn The Lessons

Although it can be hard to watch our kids struggle, particularly when they are hurting, losing, or disappointed, stepping in to help when it isn’t truly necessary robs them of important lessons they need to learn. Toughness, resilience, grit, curiosity, problem-solving, and many, many more skills are learned by struggling through challenges and even pain.

Listening to a Tim Ferris podcast recently, with Seth Godin as his guest, Godin shared a story about a Master’s class in swimming at Stanford University from a guy named Bill Boomer, who had worked with the U.S. Swimming Team. His process for teaching swimming was unlike anything most of us learned as a child, but it was incredibly effective. Although it was a very different technique, I think what he said applies to learning how to swim in general, and is a good reminder for those of us who might like to step in and “save” our kids when they struggle.

He said, (and I’m paraphrasing), “To learn to swim, you have to sort of drown.”

To learn to ride a bike you have to sort of crash over and over again.

To learn to hit a baseball you have to sort of act like you are using a large aluminum fly swatter.

To learn to jump rope you have to kind of tangle yourself up.

These are “safe”, don’t generally bother us, the helping helps, and we are willing to let our kids struggle through looking ridiculous, scraping their knee, or getting frustrated while they figure it out. When it comes to life stuff, we like to jump in and be a hero.

The truth is, with a few exceptions, these are safe too, we can find ways to help that actually help, and we can let our kids struggle through looking ridiculous while they figure it out.

I’m pulling for you,


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