Research Corner: Can I help you?

spencerby Renee Spencer

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.

2 Comments on "Research Corner: Can I help you?"

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  1. Thank you, Renee, for posting this! This is helpful for both our staff and mentors. We work with youth who are returning from juvenile incarceration and our mentors do a lot of advocacy work as well as mentoring. We frequently reinforce to our mentors that their job as an advocate is to help their mentee form his own goals, find his voice to express them to others, and figure out what steps he needs to take on his own. It’s hard for all of us, mentors and staff alike, to consistently provide the properly balanced support that you’re describing. It’s helpful to hear you discuss it in these terms. The concept that, at least some cases, it might be more useful to be there to pick up the pieces than to prevent the fall, is particularly relevant for us. It pertains directly to our emotional struggle when our mentees sometimes get in trouble again. Thank you.

  2. Graig Meyer says:

    In my experience, many mentor struggle with this. We try to encourage a general rule of thumb along the lines of “you should only put in as much effort to help as the mentee is putting in to help herself.” But mentors often see a kid who is really struggling in some area because of “bad” decisions, and they want to intervene. There tend to be two things that make this really difficult… 1) Those decisions may seem bad from the mentor’s perspective, but they may have actually made sense from the mentee’s position. Most people make decisions that they believe will bring them stability and/or happiness. Maybe the mentee didn’t have any “good” options and took what seemed best at the time? In any case, when you feel that your decision making is being criticized, it hurts. Mentors have to find a careful balance between being honest in constructive criticism and damaging the relationship through patronizing intervention. 2) In lots of instances, there’s not really anything the mentor can directly do to “fix” a situation. Whatever they try to do is likely to cross boundaries and can potentially damage the relationship with the mentee and/or her family. So… What’s a mentor to do? As hard as it is, we emphasize continuing to be a positive role model and supporter. Reinforce good decisions. Support reflection on difficult decisions. Don’t give up, because while you might not be able to fix something in the short run, you can help your mentee to make different choices in the long run.

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