Our twenty-five-year old son is living on his own for the first time. He has a good-paying job but still lives paycheck to paycheck and frequently borrows money from us. We have bailed him out a number of times and just can’t do it anymore. He has asked if he could move back home to save for a year. He manipulates us and often plays the “feel sorry for me” card. As a mother, I hate to refuse helping him. Is letting him move home a good idea? How can we help him learn to control his spending without controlling him?
Dear Apron Strings,
You are asking the age-old question: “Am I helping in a way that helps?” When we attempt to help others, it is wise to stop and ask which of two kinds of problems they are facing:
A situational problem is one that is caused by some external agent. For example, I can’t pay my rent because I lost my job. Or, I failed my final because I caught a virus that kept me bedridden and incapable of studying for three weeks. When someone suffers from a situational problem, it’s easy to help in a way that helps. Usually we do it by solving others’ lack through gifts. We take from our abundance to provide for their lack. For example, I give you $200 to help you make your rent payment.
The second kind of problem—behavioral problems—are trickier. These are problems we create through our own choices. For example, I can’t pay my rent because I lost my job . . . because I am unreliable and unpleasant to work with. Or, I failed my final because I got sick . . . because I drank and partied with friends to the point of exhaustion.
As you can see from these two examples, situational problems often occur in combination with behavioral ones. As the saying goes, fortune favors the prepared. The converse is true as well—misfortune favors the misbehaving. If you want to help in a way that helps, look for contributing behavioral causes even in clearly situational problems.
My principle for helping others is to always ask, “How will my potential help influence their future behavior?” This question is crucial because if you really want to help, your goal should not just be to alleviate present suffering, but future suffering as well. Your compassion should direct you not just to immediate relief, but to total pain. Otherwise, you might act in a way that makes you and them feel good now, but produces much more pain in the long term. So, be clear about what you really want!
In 1978, Muhammad Yunus, an unknown economics professor from Chittagong, Bangladesh trudged through a famine-ravaged village trying to find a way to help his starving countrymen. After days of discerning conversation with dozens of villagers, he discovered that most were caught in a cycle of poverty because they lacked access to just a few pennies in capital to sustain their simple income-producing activities. For example, one woman who produced beautiful bamboo stools was forced to borrow the equivalent of twenty-five cents from a village loan-shark at 1000% interest in order to buy her supplies. This exorbitant rate kept her from accumulating the twenty-five cents that would liberate her from this exploitative relationship.
Yunus was tempted to reach into his pocket and simply gift the money to this woman. But his social science training caused him to pause. He recognized that while the situational famine was a significant cause of the woman’s suffering, his gift might influence her behavior in a way that would hurt her in the long term. The thought struck him, “The one thing this woman has that I am about to steal from her is her responsibility.” A rich outsider solving her problem might cause her to feel less capable of solving her problems on her own. Instead, Yunus loaned her the money. And he charged her interest so she could feel that this was a business relationship. The rest is history. To date billions of dollars of tiny “micro credit” loans have been offered—and repaid—by the poor around the world. Where gifts create dependence, these loans—and the dignity that comes from repaying them—have influenced planning and investing behavior among the poor in a way that has produced a lasting benefit.
The most important gift you can hope for your son is not relief of his current suffering but a sense of efficacy, or in other words, a capacity to solve his own problems. You are wise to consider whether one more gift is truly helping or hurting. In fact, your gifts likely come with the message that you don’t believe he can solve his own problems. You may well be influencing his behavior in a way that contradicts your own stated intentions. I wish you the best as you attempt to help him in a way that helps.