The Wrong Kind of Help

It's easy to give the wrong kind of help. We ought to pay attention to why this happens. ---

The Wrong Kind of Help
Photo by Tom Parsons / Unsplash
Photo by Tom Parsons / Unsplash
This is the first article in a short series on how to find the right kind of help to give someone, by thinking about what it means for them to flourish.

It's distressingly common to give the wrong kind of help. I did it to my son just five days ago.

He was doing some tricky homework at 11:15pm that was due at midnight—as one does in college. The assignment was to build a webpage with HTML and CSS, and my knowledge of both is sketchy, at best. Yet here I was suggesting one idea after another to get a stupid menu item to line up correctly on the page. He finally had to tell me (politely, to his credit) that I was squandering the time he had left before it was due. I apologized, told him I believed in his ability to figure it out, and slunk off to bed wishing I'd been more aware of what he needed.

Fortunately, he did figure out a pretty ingenious little solution that he was actually quite proud of, and turned it in just before the deadline. (No way would I have had the same idea, and honestly the thought stings a tiny bit.) I'm relieved that it worked for him, in spite of my clumsy attempt to help.

Do we know how to help?

Perhaps the most frequent mistake in helping someone comes from giving the wrong kind of help. In everyday, small moments, it’s obvious what help to give. Hold open the door for someone. Let a customer with small kids ahead of you in the checkout line. Carry some boxes to your coworker’s car. This sort of help isn’t likely to go wrong.

But here’s a moment that’s probably given you pause: Should you give $5 to the panhandler? It would be a silly question—after all, it’s only $5—if it wasn’t so difficult to answer. How will they spend it? Does this do long-term harm to them? Are you contributing to a bigger problem?

The panhandler example is just the beginning. How do we really know what help to give to others? We don’t easily know what’s right for a total stranger. But we even struggle to answer this question for someone close to us, someone who is weighed down by problems. Do we give them money, lend them an ear, help them make friends, or let them learn to do it on their own? Can we make things worse with our good intentions?

Narrow help

With so much uncertainty, we easily get it wrong and there are many ways to get it wrong. Let's explore the most common mistake: thinking too narrowly about the help that is needed. Perhaps one of these examples of narrow help rings true to you:

  • A dad is so worried about his son’s grades that it comes up in every conversation with him.
  • A woman stops talking to her friend who insists on dating the guy that’s bad for her.
  • A church group wants to support the local hospital by making blankets that they weren’t asked to bring.
  • A supervisor—who’s worried about her employee getting fired—gives warning after warning to him for being ten minutes late every day.
  • A neighbor brings a meal that some of the family can’t eat due to food allergies.
  • A school district buys thousands of laptops for its elementary schools, and the laptops sit unused by the kids.
  • A mentor keeps sending networking opportunities to a protégé who is struggling with imposter syndrome.
  • A grandson eagerly sets up smart lights for his grandma, but she finds the technology overwhelming.
  • A coworker avoids bringing up the death of a colleague’s mom to avoid making them feel bad.
  • A friend who loves dancing keeps inviting an introvert to a club.
  • A company implements a wellness program to reduce stress, but employees need flexible work hours to manage needs at home.

These examples all show an intent to help, but with an attempt that misses the mark. All of us are prone to mistakes like this. The problem isn’t lack of interest, or neglecting a responsibility, or thinking about ourselves. The problem is focusing on the wrong thing.

What should be our focus instead? I think the right idea is to fix our gaze on something much bigger than our first thought. We ought instead to think about how people flourish. Starting there will give us better ideas of how to help.

In the next article (coming soon), we'll learn something more about human flourishing and what it can teach us.

In the meantime, think about times that you've given the wrong kind of help. Why did you? I'd love to hear from you in a comment on this article or in an email. Thank you for your thoughts!


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Written by

Aaron Miller

Aaron Miller

Provo, UT