Helping vs Enabling: Part One

Life rarely allows for clear-cut categories. There is a thin line between being firm and rigid, flexible and weak, cheap and prudent. One of the thinnest is between helping and enabling. Helping is providing assistance, which allows people to grow and become independent. Enabling is providing aid that facilitates dependency. This is best illustrated by the Chinese proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Thomas, a retired dentist, has a son Josh who bought his family a very large house and a new Mercedes. On a regular basis, Josh pleads with his dad for help with his mortgage payments. Thomas’ savings are being depleted, but he feels stuck. He doesn’t want Josh to lose his home but he doesn’t want to jeopardize his own security. Yet he doesn’t see him applying austerity to his life. What to do?

Fran and Bob, retired school administrators, have an adult son who is a compulsive gambler. He periodically tells them he’s being physically threatened unless he pays his gambling debts. What to do?

About 15 years ago, I had a near-lethal heart attack, but I recovered quickly. Right after leaving the hospital, I was somewhat phobic, listening to every heartbeat while taking it easy and watching TV. I asked my wife Marilyn if she would go upstairs to get me a blanket. What to do?

These issues are not easy. They involve people we care for and have concerns about. These examples demonstrate situations where it is hard not to enable people. Yet, there are some guidelines.

If the person is not taking responsibility for his decisions, stop enabling. I advised Thomas to tell Josh that his mortgage is his own responsibility. I did not think he should tell his son how to handle his money, which would lead to more conflict.

I recommended to Fran and Bob they tell their gambling son that they love him and welcome him in their home and that they will give him money one last time. But to make clear they do not want to discuss his gambling or debts anymore, nor do they want to be asked for money so they don’t have to say, “No.”

If someone can do for himself, encourage him. Marilyn knew I was discharged without restriction, so she looked at me and said, “Get off your ass and get your own goddamn blanket.” I laughed, gave her a kiss and went upstairs and got the blanket. She knew if she did it for me it might enable me to drift into the path of least resistance and slide into dependency.

“A privilege once given becomes a right.” Enabled people were taught to be entitled and pulling away the entitlements pisses some off. Yet, if the relationship is based on being a cornucopia of goods, it is already shaken. People often need assistance and a responsibility of family is to help each other. Although, giving sometimes helps, it also sometimes inhibits self-reliance. Not easy. Tune in next month for “Helping” guidelines.

Dr. Fred Levine, formerly of Harvard University, is the author of three books, many articles and has a practice in Port Jefferson. His website is