Helping vs Enabling Part II

Everyone needs help from time to time. My wife and I were out of power for five days after Sandy when a friend invited us over to shower and dine. We absolutely appreciated it. Similarly, a few winters ago we went to Yellowstone thinking we were fully prepared for the sub-zero cold. A skiing friend, Leslie, gave us warm clothes she knew we would need. Without her help, we would have frozen our butts off and that glorious vacation would have been a disaster.

Help—be it listening to people’s problems or giving money, aid or teaching skills—should be satisfying to the giver as well as the receiver. If asked for help, we should give freely, but we must also feel able to decline without fear of jeopardizing the relationship. If we give because we feel too guilty to refuse, we could feel exploited and resent helping.

In Part I of this topic, I discussed the fine line between helping and enabling, and how enabling can lead to dependency. On the other hand, helping should solve problems. When we help, we can expect appreciation, but not reciprocity. The people we help should not feel indebted.

Marvin and Zelda loaned their son money to pay for a house, car and private school for his children. Later, they were hurt and angry to find that their son and his wife gave her parents custody of the grandchildren in their will. So hurt in fact that they did not speak to their son for months.

The purpose of giving is to help—there should not be hidden expectations of reciprocity or control. As newlyweds, my in-laws generously offered to buy my wife and I a car. They then tried to dictate the make and model. I told them we wanted a VW, not a Chevy, and they understood.

Marvin and Zelda assumed that their help gave them certain rights. Asked if they enjoyed being with their grandchildren, Zelda had no ambiguity—they were a major joy. We discussed what their expectations were when they helped. They assumed incorrectly, as many people do, that they were entitled to some reciprocity when they opened their hearts and wallets to their son and his family.

Appreciation, yes. Control, no. Marvin and Zelda felt good about helping, but their assumption that they were entitled to certain privileges was incorrect. Although the motive for assigning custody wasn’t clear (possibly because the other set of grandparents were younger), it doesn’t matter. Their reaction scarred a family relationship.

It is wonderful when people volunteer help, but it is not a sign of weakness to ask for it. Often it’s a way of bonding. While living in Stony Brook, I became closer to a neighbor after he asked for assistance tutoring his son. It made me feel good to help. Not long after, my wife and I returned home after a big snowstorm and found our driveway cleared courtesy of our neighbor and his son.

We cannot assume reciprocity, but we can expect appreciation. Appreciation can be expressed by removing snow, by giving a gift or simply by smiling and saying thanks.

Illustration by Tom LaMothe