“The proverb warns that, ‘You should not bite the hand that feeds you.’ But maybe you should, if it prevents you from feeding yourself.”
― Thomas Stephen Szasz
Perhaps, if my children had bitten my feeding hand long ago, I would have been able to offer them two important things: dignity and independence. I’ve learned a lot over the past several years, about being a parent and just being a person (this applies to you who are not parents), and many of my lessons have been at the expense of my own ego, calling into question my belief that I was doing what was best or right for others. However, the sacrifice of my way of doing things has been worth the good that has come to my life and to the lives of those I love.
It’s human nature. We see the person in need, and most of us want to offer help, believing that a person in need needs us, right? When my children were little, I was prepared to manage their needs, sometimes before they knew what they needed. Surely, I am not alone. It’s that desire in us to help others that drives us to intervene, and yes, we are intervening. Worse, we are enabling.
Oh, enabling is such a harsh word for a parent who is trying to help his child, for a passing driver who wants to help the hungry man, for a person who offers to pay another person’s electric bill each month when temperatures are cold. I’ve been all three of those people wanting to help, and I have had to learn that often my kindness is merely an enabling crutch.
At what point does it change from helping to enabling? It’s different for each of us, I’m sure, but in general if I am doing things for you that you could be doing for yourself but are expecting me to do for you, then I am enabling you. Maybe you could fill your own glass of water, but I’m already at the sink filling my own. If I choose to fill it for you, it’s a gift. If I fill your glass because you expect me to do it, I am enabling you. That is no gift–not to you nor to me nor to the next person who has to deal with you. The nicest gift I can give you is to show you how to fill your glass yourself and allow you to do for yourself. It would be easier in the beginning for me to do it for you, but eventually I would resent you, and you would never appreciate me.
When we allow another person the dignity of figuring out solutions to problems, he will feel better about himself in the end. I have begun to accept that if I want people (children and others) to be independent, I have to allow them the dignity of figuring out solutions to problems without fixing the problems on my own. It isn’t easy to step back and wait.
Independence will come. It came for our country, after all, when the citizens decided that they wanted to be able to do things for themselves. Independence is a thing to be celebrated.
If you are a parent, tell your child to set an alarm, you can check on them if that works for you.
If you are a boss, tell your employee you can grab a cup of coffee for them while you are at the coffee pot, if that’s convenient for you.
If you are a citizen who wants to help someone down on their luck, find out what they could be doing for themselves first, and only help as far as you really are needed.
If you are a spouse, consider folding the clothes or filling up the gas tank yourself, instead of expecting another person to do it for you.
If you are a friend, consider asking for help if you really need it, offering help if it’s really needed, and being content to just be present.
You don’t have to bite the hand that feeds you, but if someone is preventing you from feeding yourself because they just can’t stop doing it for you, it’s time to claim your independence ever so politely and enjoy the dignity in seeing all you can do on your own. And then when someone offers to help, you can choose to accept it or not, knowing that it is simply a gift.