Eli Finkell and Gráinne Fitzsimmons, two researchers who study interpersonal relationships, ran an Op-Ed called “When Helping Hurts” in this past Sunday’s New York Times. While they focused on helicopter parents — the ones who hover and have to be told that it is time to leave when dropping their children off at college — I immediately saw some of the mentors I have interviewed over the years in their descriptions. Moreover, I found their basic conclusions about what makes help effective compelling.
Some research indicates that helicopter parenting appears to diminish children’s own agency and sense of satisfaction with their lives. Help is most effective, Finkell and Fitzsimons write, “when the recipient clearly needs it, when our help complements rather than replaces the recipient’s own efforts, and when it makes recipients feel that we’re comfortable having them depend on us.” This requires that helpers resist the temptation to step in when they are not truly needed and offer help that is highly “responsive to the recipient’s circumstances.”
This seemingly simple advice can be difficult to heed. It is not always clear when and how a mentor should offer help. Getting this balance right requires getting to know a young person, and even their family, well enough to know what kinds of help would be welcomed and experienced as supportive. In some cases, it might require seeing a child’s potential in an area where the child and even important others in the child’s life may not. In still others, it might mean being there to pick up the pieces rather than preventing the fall. All of this requires considerable thoughtfulness on the part of mentors and the programs that support them. It also calls on us to think more deeply about how mentors can and should help the young people they serve and how to do so in the most effective way possible.