When Helping is Hurting

I gave a presentation to a group of sixth graders and asked an innocent question, “Who here earns money?”  As I expected there were those who mowed lawns, babysat, shoveled snow, folded laundry, etc. to earn cash.  These kids weren’t “working papers” ready, and they took great pride in earning their own money – and not too surprisingly, they seemed to be more discriminating on how they spent it, and had a solid understanding of what was an item or service that they needed versus something they wanted.

A pretty little girl sat with her arms crossed and called out that her parents didn’t want her to work; they wanted her to focus on her studies.  I smiled.  Isn’t earning money, working hard and being responsible a lesson unto itself?  Isn’t that more valuable than memorizing and regurgitating some meaningless facts for the short-term gratification of a good grade, only to have this cycle start all over again?  She wasn’t done talking, not by a long shot – and it was very revealing, indeed.

“Is food a need or a want?” I asked – a ridiculously easy question.

“A need!” they shouted.

“Now is Starbucks a need or a want?”

“My Mom can’t live without coffee!” someone called out.

“Me either,” I admitted, “But is paying $20 a week for it a luxury, a want?”

That’s when my little friend piped up again, “Starbucks is absolutely a need!  I have to have Starbucks!”

“How convenient,” I thought, “You get to have your expensive coffee and someone else pays.”

It’s tempting to make life so good for your kids that you actually thwart their progress.  There is great wisdom in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  So when is “helping” really not so helpful?  When is helping actually hurting?

Keeping your kids isolated from the realities of life doesn’t stop the responsibilities from coming; it only retards their ability to respond appropriately to the challenges.  Again my little friend had a nugget to offer up, “My parents don’t want me to get a job until after I graduate college.”  Perhaps I went a tad over the line here, but my reply was simple, “Do you think it would be helpful or harmful if your Mom said to you: ‘Honey, don’t bother learning to read.  I will go to college with you and read out loud to you every night from your textbooks.  Don’t worry your pretty little head about it.’   Finally, she was silent.  The other kids thought that idea was dumb or worse, embarrassing to have mom reading to them in college.

When you deprive a child of rising to the occasion so you can look like a hero, it is harmful.  The message can easily be construed as the world is your servant; or worse, you are incapable of handling this yourself.  All the children who earned money had one thing in common: confidence.  They were excited to share that they could be trusted to be responsible and to do a good job.  The end result, of course, is that they treated that money differently than if it was a handout.  If we are to hope that they will be motivated, productive and responsible with their money – shouldn’t we start these good habits as soon as they are able to assert themselves and earn some money?  Now that would be more helpful than making sure that they memorized their way through school, don’t you think?

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