When Helping Does More Harm Than Good

Today’s Truth:

“As mothers, we tend to do things for our kids that they could and should be doing themselves…in reality, though, we may be stunting their maturity and growth.”

NOTE: This truth topic is very near and dear to my heart. Though most of my examples pertain to parenting, this concept is true about anyone in our lives who we try to help. My hope is that this article will change the way you understand what it means to really “help” someone, leading you to take actions that really will help them in the long run.

Have you ever been taught a lesson that is so eye-opening it changes everything? I think the correct term for a lesson of that magnitude is called a “paradigm shift.” That is, “A fundamental change in an individual’s or a society’s view of how things work in the world.”

Yes. That is what I had alright—a good old-fashioned paradigm shift.

Next to understanding for the first time who Jesus is in my life, this particular paradigm shift was nearly as profound. “What could it possibly be,” you ask? Well, I’ll tell you…I have witnessed first-hand what happens when one “over-parents” their children, and it isn’t pretty. (Check out an article about this very topic by clicking here.)

The lesson was taught to me through experiences with my college-bound son, but was magnified by a quick and easy definition of what enabling vs. helping means. You see, over the past year, I couldn’t understand why my wonderful, amazing son (whom I love tremendously) struggled so much with doing seemingly normal things that needed to be done in life—things like finding a job, turning in paperwork, doing chores around the house, getting his school work done, etc. It wasn’t that I had done any of those things for him; in fact, I had come to grips with the idea that my “helicopter parenting” methods weren’t working! (My husband might disagree that I’ve totally stopped, though.)

Let me give you one example of how this manifested itself in our lives. We felt strongly about the fact that our son should have a job. I believe that teenagers should have jobs for many reasons, like earning some extra money, learning to manage their time wisely, and gaining experience in the workforce. But just demanding that he get a job didn’t really work. Why? Because we actually never gave him any real reason to get one, and even after I helped him get one, to keep it!

The truth is that we allowed him to continue doing the things he enjoyed without any really consequence for his lack of effort. We supplied him a car, along with insurance and gas. We paid for his cell phone plan with seemingly unlimited minutes and data. We supplied him a cozy upstairs loft, complete with super-sized T.V. along with the cable sports package. We bought all his favorite foods and drinks. And, we allowed things into our house that we shouldn’t have without much push-back. In the meantime, we were unhappy, frustrated, and stressed out, while he was happy as a clam kicking back enjoying the good life! It was not a good scene at the Edwards’ house this summer—that is for certain. I think you can see why the job hunt wasn’t a priority for him. We were guilty enablers. In the name of “helping” our son have a good life, we had removed the natural consequences of his behavior and were in fact stunting him.

One day, I came across this definition of what it means to “enable” someone, rather than “helping” them. This is what it said: “Enabling means doing something for someone that they are capable of and should do for themselves, whereas helping means doing something for someone that they cannot do for themselves.” The truth is that as mothers, we tend to do things for our kids that they could and should be doing themselves…in reality, though, we may be stunting their maturity and growth. This could range anywhere from tying shoes for your seven-year old, to rewriting a paper for your 7th grader. Our son was more than capable of working to pay for many of these things himself; yet, we provided them for him anyway.

Recently, I sat with a mom whose college-bound son stayed home most days playing video games while she worked all day. We were commiserating together over this stage in our sons’ lives when she mentioned that she left work every day to come home to make him lunch. I asked her why she did that! I mean the kitchen was 20 feet from him, and he’s 18-years-old! Why should she have to leave to do that for him? It came down to her nurturing heart (that I am guilty of having, too), and the desire to serve her child while he was still at home. We both recognized that what we had been doing for our children was wrong. When we did things in the name of “helping” or “serving” them, it actually backfired on us. We were enabling and reinforcing their negative behaviors, thus delaying the maturing process. We sent them the message, “You can get away with doing what you want without any negative effects,” like going hungry (in the case of her son), or not having a car (in the case of my son).

My advice?

First of all, look at these Scriptures from Proverbs—they are so true!

  • Proverbs 12:11 – Those who work their land will have abundant food,
        but those who chase fantasies have no sense.
  • Proverbs 14:23 – All hard work brings a profit,
        but mere talk leads only to poverty.
  • Proverbs 16:26 – The appetite of laborers works for them;
        their hunger drives them on.

Second, consider what you really want your son or daughter to do or not do. Is there a behavior you want to change or an attitude that is ruining the peace in your home? Do they need to get a job? Get better grades? Do their chores? Be more respectful? Stop doing x or y?

Third, determine in your mind that you are going to identify the things you do that enables them to continue in their negative behavior, versus things you do that truly helps them in their day-to-day life. Memorize the definition I gave you above to weigh against as you go through different issues that come up. Ask yourself, “Am I helping or hindering?”

Fourth, don’t give in to the pressure of our culture that says your son or daughter has the right to have their own cell phone, a car to drive, designer clothes, expensive sporting equipment, access to TV or the Wii, etc. Truly, these are luxury items, “wants,” not “needs.” As a parent, it is your prerogative to withhold these if you feel your child hasn’t earned the right to have them. You may want to take an inventory of all the things and privileges you supply him or her without their having to earn them (cell phone, car expenses, late curfew, sports equipment, TV or gaming equipment, and so on).

Fifth, be clear about what you expect from them. Keep things very black and white. For example, “The only way you get to own a cell phone is if your grades are above a ____.” “The only way you get to have a car is if you can pay for _____.” “The only way you get to play on the X-Box is if your chores are completely finished beforehand.” “The only way you get a curfew of ___ is if you can demonstrate ____ for 6-months.”

Lastly, feel FREE to take them away one-by-one until they get the point, or add things to their life as they earn them. Don’t give in to fear that your child is without something everyone else’s kids have, and don’t let your emotions run away from you; they’ll be ok and so will you! Stay firm. Resist giving the items back or giving in to providing anything until your child delivers what it is you’re trying to get them to do on a regular, consistent basis. (One-time obedience doesn’t count. You’re looking for new patterns and habits.) You’ve got this!

At this point in our journey, we have stripped nearly everything away from our son. But I think he’s starting to get the point as his discomfort grows. It’s too early to determine if our methods will work, but we are seeing some positive signs. The good news is that I truly believe we are helping him now—not enabling him to continue on as a stunted young adult. I hope this helps you in your journey as a parent; I know I wish I had learned this lesson years ago.

What about you? What can you share with us that helped your kids mature? What things have backfired? Leave a comment below!