Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

When helping hurts

by Mary Cronk Farrell

(From the May 22, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)

Burt had just come through triple-bypass heart surgery. He was sitting up in his hospital bed, and he was hungry. His wife, Angie, moved the breakfast tray into position and Burt reached for his spoon.

“Ouch,” he said “Honey, you’ll have to feed me. It hurts too much to stretch out my arm like that.”

So Angie began to feed him. As she spooned oatmeal into his mouth the nurse tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, “You’re hurting him.”

“What?” said Angie.

“Go ahead, finish,” said the nurse, “then come and talk to me.”

Later, outside Burt’s room, the nurse told Angie, “Even though it hurts your husband, he has to stretch his arm out and feed himself, or he’ll lose his ability to do it. If you do things for him, you’ll just help incapacitate him.”

Burt’s recovery took months. Months, where day after day, Angie watched him struggle through pain, and labor to do simple tasks. It was difficult to watch and not help. She remembered what the nurse had said, and encouraged him with words and affection.

Angie and Burt’s story illustrates a point worthy of reflection.

As parents, are there times when we do for our children, thinking we’re helping them, when actually we are preventing them from stretching and growing? Do we guard them from the natural pains of childhood, hoping to protect them, but instead robbing them of valuable life experience?

I’ll never forget the first time my son had a helium balloon. When he accidentally let go of the string and it drifted away, he was inconsolable. I wanted to jump in the car and go buy him another balloon. I seemed to lose my reason, seeing his disappointment and loss. I wanted to wipe away those tears forever. Now my son is nearly 17. I still struggle with my urge to protect him, even though I know that to become a mature adult, he must face pain and learn to come through it.

The following suggestions may help you see ways to allow your children to stretch.

• Next time your toddler says she can’t dress herself, or pick up her toys, don’t jump in to help. Encourage, stay present if you have too, but insist that she do it herself.

• You hear about a middle-school party, and realize your daughter was not invited. You hesitate to bring it up, thinking maybe she doesn’t know, and if she does you don’t want to remind her she has been left out. Think again. We can’t be liked by everyone. Kids will learn that, and the sooner, the better. Take time to elicit your daughter’s feelings, to show understanding and acceptance. Assure her of your love and regard. Support her while she works through the hurt of being rejected, a painful feeling none of us will likely avoid.

• Your teenager forgets to arrange a ride to the movies. Resist the urge to fix it for him by canceling your plans and offering to drive him. Suggest he take the bus, if that’s possible, or maybe this time, he’ll just have to stay home. Be sympathetic, but let him experience the disappointment.

Though painful, experiences like these are necessary for growth. When tempted to “help” a child, friend or spouse instead of allowing them to stretch for their own good, it may be helpful to reflect on God’s own hands-off approach.

We get ourselves into a jam, then beg God to help us. How difficult it must be for our loving Creator to watch us stew in our own mess. God’s love and encouragement is always there, but we may also hear a clear message to get ourselves in gear and work through our problems. Looking back, we see how painful times of stretching become valuable and often transforming experiences.

© 2003 Mary Cronk Farrell

(Mary Cronk Farrell is a Spokane free-lance journalist and children’s writer, and co-author of the new book Daughters of the Desert, from Skylight Paths Publishing.)

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