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The Dangerous Pathway of Rescuing Others from Their Choices


13Jan 2013

I have been working with families, kids, teens and young adults for 30 years now.  One of the most common challenges I see individuals experience is knowing when to let their family members experience the results of their choices and when to intervene and “rescue” them from the negative consequences they will be facing. (Interestingly, the situation often occurs with adult siblings, as well as the more common incidents with children – regardless of their age.)

The pattern can start subtly and innocently (for example, taking Johnny’s report to school for him when he left it home accidentally) but, if left unchecked, it becomes an insidious, growing python that will strangle the development of personal responsibility in your child.

If we are not careful, the symbiotic relationship between parent and child grows more intense (not less, as it should, over the years), where we move from rescuing Johnny from forgetting his gym clothes to  staying up late with him to get a project done in middle school that he procrastinated doing for three weeks to negotiating with the high school administration not to suspend him “this time” for breaking school policy to bailing him out of jail for drunk driving and paying the extra costs to get record expunged to paying off $20,000 in credit card debt while he lives at home at age 26 while he is “looking for a job”.  And the pattern goes on (trust me, I’ve seen it continue until the individual is in their 50’s).

Now, am I saying that if you take your child’s forgotten report to school that you are on the direct path to these other results?  No.  But you are putting yourself at risk for winding up on this pathway.  (Note: I am currently dealing with families in each of these situations.)

One of life’s important lessons we each need to learn is that:

Life is made up of choices, and with each choice there is usually a result (positive, negative, or sometimes both) associated with our choice.

And one of the responsibilities of parenthood is to help our children learn this principle of life.  Unfortunately, many parents have the guiding principle: “I just want my child to be happy”, which is a slippery slope and non-winning proposition, for a number of reasons:

  • First, happiness (and contentment) is an internally driven result.  I ultimately am in control of my own happiness.  No one else can make me “be happy”.  Neither can we make our kids happy.  Once we accept that yoke of responsibility, they have us in the realm of emotional blackmail – where we are constantly trying to do things to make them happy.  The unintended result is that by being unhappy and discontent they get more good stuff and fun experiences that we pile on them, hoping they will eventually get to the State of Happiness.  This is a long, never-ending road.
  • Secondly, to learn and grow in life, we have to experience (and go through) difficulties.  Sometimes this is the result of making a less-than-wise choice, and experiencing the negative consequences from that choice.  However, we learn the most by experiencing the consequences – not by being threatened with them.  And when we are grounded, or lose access to our iPhone, we are not happy.  Welcome to life.  This is part of the learning process.
  • Finally, if I make a poor choice, and don’t experience any negative (and expected) consequences, why should I choose differently?  In my world, if I can work and make x amount of money, or not go to work and make the same amount of money – I’m going fishing.

Most Common Pathway When We Start to Rescue Others

The foundational challenge becomes, once I start rescuing someone from the negative consequences of their choices, when do I stop doing so?  Because, for many people (most?), we rarely will learn to make better choices for ourselves unless we experience both the rewards associated with good choices and the negative results that usually come with poor choices.  Unfortunately, some poor choices have some immediate positive experience while the negative results may not occur until later (think playing video games vs. studying for a test).

My warning to you, after watching this pattern for years and reflecting on the dilemmas I see parents and family members face, is:  Be careful when you rescue someone from their choices.  Be intentional — know why you are doing it, if you do.  Be forewarned — you will most probably face the same (or very similar situation) again with them.  If you continue to intervene, you have started down a very dangerous pathway.  And it becomes harder, and harder to quit rescuing — partly because the consequences become more and more seriously life-impacting, the longer the process continues.

Exception: When to Consider Intervening

Now I am not advocating a hard-core, no exception “tough love” approach.  I think there are two situations when you should seriously consider intervening, but they are both fairly rare situations. (That is why they should be viewed as exceptions.)

A. When the consequence of a person’s choice is obviously going to lead to immediate physical harm or risk of death for them or someone else.  Examples of this would include: intervening when someone is about drive under the influence of alcohol; or a young child is going to run out into a busy street.

B. When the person:

  1. has already begun to experience some of the negative consequences of their choice,
  2. has consequences to come that will have long-term significant negative impact on their life,
  3. does not blame others or circumstances, or make excuses for what happened,
  4. sees and admits they made a big mistake and accept responsibility for their choice,
  5. has already begun to think through what corrective actions they are going to take once they are through the mess, or they are willing to accept guidance and counsel and follow-through on the advice given.

But unless all of these conditions (a thru e) are met, the likelihood of a positive result coming from rescuing the individual from their current situation is extremely low.

Do yourself, your family member, and your whole family a favor:  Begin as soon as possible to walk on a different path — let them make their choice and then let them learn as early in life as possible from experiencing both the positive results and negative consequences that come from their choices.

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