When Helping Isn’t Helpful


It was cold, too cold to be standing around outside. I had just parked the car after running out with the family to pick up some stocking stuffers. The ride home isn’t all that long, but my boys have a bad habit of taking their shoes off anytime they get in the car. We preempt their efforts usually (or relent to them when the drive time seems sufficient), but on this occasion my youngest one slipped it by us. Of course his preference on this cold night was for me to put his shoes back on him so he could walk himself to the house. I didn’t have time to fool with that. The shoe had already dropped. A decision was made.

I wrested the squirmer out of his seat and carried him to the house. When I sat him down inside, he cried and screamed in a manner reserved for the worst of beaten children. Head back, tears flyin’, mouth wide open yellin’ at the top of his lungs. And this continued several minutes. My goodness, what had I done to cause such anguish?

Children often have this immature notion that things have to always be done their way. And adults often have an equally immature notion that the help they offer is always offered in the best way. We needed to get from the car to the house. Since I was the one wearing the shoes in this relationship, it shouldn’t have mattered to my son how we achieved our goal. But it did. Helping, to him, would have been for me to put his shoes on for him, in spite of the time it would have taken in the cold, so he could walk for himself. But it was more convenient for me to simply carry him. Mission accomplished. But was my help helpful?

The best of intentions don’t always equal out to giving the best of help. If you want to offer help that is helpful, you should remember:

  • The end does not justify the means.
  • I always had great 4-H club woodwork projects. My dad did them for me. Not that I wanted them to be done for me, but it was more convenient for him to just do them. He could get the work done faster without me trying to drive screws or cut boards. He’s paying for it now, however; even though I picked up some of his skills, he still has to come help me do home improvement projects. I had great projects in the end, but I didn’t feel helped.

  • If you recognize the need to “do” helping in your own way, acknowledge that you’re doing it the way that is best for you…
  • None of us are saints just because we help somebody. And our ability or capacity to help will not be at 100% in all places, at all times. So just be honest about what you can do and what you can’t do, so the helped person can decide if what you can do is the help they want to receive. And if what you have to offer isn’t received as helpful, forget about saying, “Well, I guess he didn’t want help after all!” He just didn’t want the help you were offering.

  • … Or just say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”
  • “No” can be a powerful way to help sometimes. We can’t tell our children yes to everything. Boundaries are important in relationships so that helping stays a way to empower the helped person to help himself. We must also count the cost of helping before making commitments. I have seen disappointment and felt the loss of credibility from people I made commitments to, small commitments that would have truly been helpful, if I had only carried them out. You’ll never have to apologize for a commitment you didn’t make, when that commitment would have resulted in a let-down. Don’t help in haste; count the cost.

    Every time we help someone in need, it should be a chance to build credibility. Helping is a growth opportunity for both parties. As a parent, there will always be times that I can’t help my children in the way they want to be helped. As a social worker, there will always be boundaries I have to keep that prevent helping from becoming enabling. But because I want to be helpful, I will be willing to endure inconvenience more often for the sake of those I hope to help, than I would if I hadn’t stopped to think about what is truly helpful for them.

    Have you ever been “helped” in an unhelpful way? Love to hear your stories in the comments below!

    Copyright (c) 2013 Glen Gaugh


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