Are you a helper, or an enabler?

Somehow, amid last week’s flurry of glitter, turkey sandwiches and stick-on bows, I still managed to get some interesting feedback on my article about giving lots of love and gifts to kids, while still requiring them to be responsible for their actions and their mistakes.

Most of your comments centered on the concept of ‘enabling.’ Enabling is defined as ‘allowing a person to avoid the consequences of his or her actions.’ Within the context of my article, an example of this would be to shield a child from experiencing any of the frustration or loss that might result from foolish or careless actions on his or her part. I wrote about how that could result in a sense of entitlement, evidenced by bad behavior and demands for more and more ‘stuff.’ A parent who reacts by rushing out and buying more, or appeasing the child with constant attention and/or sympathy, is ‘enabling’ even more bad behavior. The child is encouraged to continue on her merry way, secure in the knowledge that no matter how rude or demanding she is, the parent will always be there to rescue her. But (you might ask), shouldn’t a loving parent always be there to help? Of course! But the question is this: Where does ‘helping’ end, and ‘enabling’ begin?

Simply put, helping is being there to do something for somebody that they can’t do for themselves. Enabling, on the other hand, is doing something for somebody that they could, and, more importantly, SHOULD do for themselves. Dr. Eli Newberger, a pediatrician and author, describes enabling as having a ‘double edge.’ He writes that children from families that enable in positive ways—by encouraging problem solving, explanation and empathy, for example—tend to score higher when measured for psychological development. In other words, kids do best in a family atmosphere that encourages the development of individuality.

The other side of the coin, according to Dr. Newberger, is the sort of enabling that promotes or tolerates self-destructive patterns of behavior. How can demanding (and immediately receiving) the latest high-tech gadget be self-destructive? Well, what happens when the parent is no longer there to provide everything that the child—now an adult—demands (including protection from sorrow and disappointment)? This obnoxious adult, burdened with his or her false sense of entitlement, is now angry and resentful at everyone who won’t cater to his or her wishes. What a sad way to live!

Kids are not stupid. They are amazingly adaptable and sensitive to patterns of behavior that get them what they want. (Really, not all that different from most well-adjusted adults.) Of course, ‘well-adjusted adults’ must earn what they want by planning ahead and exercising maturity by budgeting their resources. Kids have to figure out how to do this without any substantial earning power of their own—in other words, by gaining emotional access to their parents’ planning and resources. By placing ‘adult’ restrictions on this access, smart parents can skillfully prepare their kids for the real world—a world where possessions and wealth must indeed be earned, and where we often suffer the consequences of our mistakes. This ‘good’ enabling can result in a mentally healthy adult, armed with the skills needed to cope and live happily day-in and day-out.

Enabling has a far greater reach than just the upbringing of children. We’ve all heard stories about family members or friends who enable a loved one’s alcoholic, gambling or other addictive behavior. This enabling can take many forms, such as lying or making excuses for the addict, giving them ‘one more chance'(over and over again), and avoiding any discussion of the problem (the proverbial ‘elephant in the living room’). Actions such as these are anything but compassionate. In fact, they’re just the opposite, in that they encourage the addict to comfortably continue his or her unacceptable behavior. Behavior which, like our examples with the kids above, can culminate in disaster down the road.

Sometimes, the enabler can be pulled down right along with the addict. In her seminal book, ‘Codependent No More,’ author Melody Beattie talks about how the enabler can undergo the same consequences as the addict, from the emotional suffering and family upheaval to practical consequences such as running out of money, loss of a job, and so on. All of a sudden, the addict’s predicament becomes the enabler’s predicament. Hence the word CO-dependent.

OK, I know what you’re thinking: ‘All this because I bought my kid a PlayStation for Christmas?!’ Of course not. Like I wrote last week, it isn’t really about the gifts or the love. Both should be showered, to the best of your ability, on young and vulnerable children. The real point is simply about holding kids (and adults) responsible for their actions. It’s about being there for them while still allowing them to experience now what they’ll experience when they grow up. It’s about presenting them with the greatest gift of all, the confidence and power to live a contented, well-adjusted and independent life.

That being said, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a happy and healthy new year, and remind you that, here in our wonderful haven by the sea, Life is, indeed, a Beach!