When Helping Isn’t Helping at All

I recently discovered that my youngest son has been manipulating me. Not just once or twice. This has been ongoing for quite some time. To provide you with a somewhat recent example, he has learned to manipulate my attempts to get him ready and out the door with his sweetest smiles, his best ‘I’m sorry’, sprinkled in with many ‘I love you-s’. Of course, my son doesn’t realize what he is doing is manipulation, nor does he understand what that word means. He does know that when he invokes these strategies they work!

I love my children very much and tell them when they exhibit an undesired behavior that while I might not like what they are doing I always love them. Yet here is my child over apologizing and saying, “I love you” upwards of ten times a day to delay having to do something or trying to get out of something altogether. I had to reevaluate what was really going on.

Being the baby in the family, I realized in some ways I have treated my youngest son like one. He can put on his own clothes, make his bed and clean up after himself. He’s been able to do this for a while, yet I still jump in to help him when he takes too long. I know if I just jump in I can get things done more quickly and we can be on our way. What wasn’t clear to me was the unintended message of “I don’t think you can do the task, therefore I’m going to help you,” I was sending him. Not a great confidence builder for my son.

I do have commitments that require my family to be out the door at a certain time each day. It takes all of us working as a family to make that happen. Each of us has tasks we each our responsible for, and all of us need to be done in a certain amount of time.

I invoked some strategies that I hadn’t used in a while and am helping my son move towards doing his share and feeling good about his contribution. Breaking free from the use of “sorry” and “I love you.” I now give him time limits for when things need to do done with reminders when we are nearing the end (e.g. he has 20 minutes to eat breakfast. I give him a five warning and another at two minutes if we still have a lot of food to go). A consequence is communicated up front if he is unable to meet his goal (e.g. you won’t have anything to eat until snack time at school if you don’t eat your breakfast now). It takes work, discipline and patience to implement this. It would be so much easier if I just did it myself, but in the long term, doing this the right way, holding my son accountable and giving him the framework to have success should yield better long term results around his own confidence, sense of accountability and ownership.

I won’t miss all the “sorrys” or “I love yous”.  I’ll treasure the new ones I get, because they’ll come without motivation behind them other than to express how he really feels. And while it will take practice on my part I believe there will be much satisfaction knowing I helped him more by not helping him.