Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teach a Man to Fish

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
— Chinese Proverb

There are two kinds of people in the world, facilitators and enablers.

The verbs facilitate and enable are synonyms, both generally meaning to make it easier for someone to do something. The noun forms, however, have taken on opposite connotations. A facilitator is a someone who helps a person or organization find a solution to a problem, while an enabler has come to mean a person who makes it possible for someone to continue with bad or destructive behavior.

A good boss knows how to be a facilitator — to help employees learn, grow and move forward. Most of us have experienced supervisors who are more concerned with their own success than that of their subordinates, a short-sighted vision at best. Effective leaders learn to delegate, support and encourage all team members.

I'm good at the supporting and encouraging part of this equation, but I think I fail as a delegator. I don't know if it's a lack of trust or my own control issues that get in the way of delegating, but I have never really learned to let go.

Good teachers also know the difference between facilitating and enabling. A teacher can talk and talk and talk, but most students need, in one way or another, to figure things out themselves. In this NY Times post, students were asked who were their best teachers and why. Over and over, responses included teachers who had high expectations and who encouraged independent thinking and learning.

But perhaps the arena where the difference between facilitation and enabling is seen most clearly is parenting. If you are a parent, you know that it is usually easier to do something yourself than to let your children to do it. Just think back to the last time your young child "helped" you fold the laundry or cook dinner or shovel the walk. If you're like me, your fingers itched and you had to swallow your offer of: "Here, let me do it." But that kind of restraint is essential for effective parenting, because we all know children who have been "over-enabled"; they're called brats.

Each child has different expectations of what constitutes parental help. My daughter has always been an "I'll-do-it-myself" kind of kid. I can't count the hours wasted when I butted in trying to help her, only to have her rip off her tights (for example) and begin again. "I do it myself" was practically her theme song. Despite sticking my nose in many times where it didn't belong, her innate independence has turned her into a highly motivated, successful young adult. She can be snappish, but she gets things done, and I think the art of delegation is going to take her a long time to master.

Her twin brother, on the other hand, has always welcomed any and all help. These babies were born at 24 weeks, and the boy's size and development lagged far behind his sister's for many years. There were things he could do and things he couldn't, but he was, and is an easy-going, lovely human being, graciously accepting any favor, large or small. I have never once heard him say "Let me do it myself."

When the twins were four, I learned about something called "assumed disability", which often goes hand in hand with an actual disability. With assumed disability, we assume that because someone cannot do one thing, they cannot do something else. From the beginning, my son had two loving, willing females to take care of him, and it took me a long time to figure out we weren't doing him any favors. One day, I heard myself ask the girl to go get her shoes and put them on; then I asked her to get his shoes so I could help him put them on. The bell finally rung and that poor boy's life has never been the same.

But the line between facilitating and enabling a child (especially one with disabilities) is a tricky one, serpentining across the sands of childhood, moving and changing while you're not looking. What is facilitating one day is enabling the next, and staying on top of that moving line takes constant vigilance.

I wish I had been better. I wish I had devoted more time, been stricter and demanded more. I wish I had worried less about his happiness and more about his independence. (Notice that I say this with perfect 20-20 hindsight.) Now the line between facilitating and enabling is a dotted one, and I'm not at all sure how to help him make the right connections. I feel lost, hamstrung by his age, the law and my own expectations.

Don't get me wrong. I've taught him many of the skills necessary for independent living: he does his own laundry, is a pretty decent cook and can get around on public transportation. But his ability to think things through from start to finish or to anticipate are impaired. Is it possible to teach common sense?

I know (hope, believe) that if he could find his passion, the independence would follow. But can you facilitate passion? Can you even enable it? I don't think so. This is just one of those things he's going to have to do himself. And I'm going to have to learn to let him.

How have you been facilitated, or how have you been a facilitator? Or tell us your tale about enabling instead. Just click here.


Linda Gartz said...

Whoa! This is a hot topic. First let me say this about your son: life will be his teacher. I used to think my older son would never learn directions. We'd leave our home to go to Old Orchard, and he'd head for the lake! I was astounded! He didn't know east from west. I'd quiz him on street names (which he resented) trying to help him get a sense of his location -- where things were. One summer he and a friend just started driving driving driving -- all around -- just to talk. They learned the area inside out and backwards Then he went to Columbia College in the city and had to take the el. He can navigate that system far better than I! He just took his first independent trip to the West coast - rented a car (just turned 25) and made his way from Seattle to San Francisco. He learned it when he needed it.

I'm more interested in the fine line between enabling and supporting. When are we SUPPORTING our kids -- helping them along in a complex world -- and when does that support become ENABLING--especially in younger years. All decent parents help kids at some level with homework--getting organized; helping them puzzle out a difficult assignment, encouraging; setting up systems that their young brains can't figure out. If they're struggling when do you let them fall on their face -- or does that make them discouraged and convinced they're "dumb" or "can't do it?" What if they have a learning disability? The answer isn't easy -- and there isn't a one-size fits all answer either. Encouraging independence is great, but no magic formula for how much when. No user manuel for parenting.

Susan Bearman said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Linda. I've been reading a lot of commentary that today's college students are unprepared for the "real" world, having been coached and supported, enabled and facilitated their entire lives. Reports are that they have no experience with failure and have difficulty making their own decisions. I guess sometimes experience isn't only the best teacher, it may be the only way we really learn how to stand on our own two feet.

Jenny said...

You have again read my mind. (How do you keep doing that?!)

I was just kicking myself today over this very topic as it pertains to my son. He is a teenager with zero cooking skills & zero interest in learning any. And it's my fault, a direct result of my incorrect thought that it was easier (and safer) for me to handle all of the cooking.

If only I could turn back time, he would be whipping up fabulous feasts, all ten fingers attached.

Susan Bearman said...

Jenny — I don't know if you need to worry about your son's cooking skills. Teenage boys always seem able to feed themselves. My brother learned that if he could cook one thing well (preferably an appetizer or a dessert) then he would always be invited to dinner parties, where other people would feed him. Try that line on your son to get him started.

On the other hand, if you could teach a to clean up after dinner, his future significant other will love you forever.

And about reading your mind, my spies are everywhere.

Maggie said...

I do think that Linda is right, and at a certain point we just have to let life step in and help.

Since I'm a mom of boys, of course my example involves the bathroom. Up until the time my now 19-year old was 6 or so, he would ask me to come in the bathroom when he was finished and help him . . . clean. I didn't really think much about it. I'm the mom, right?

Problem was, we had a small house with a bathroom door a little uncomfortably close to the dining room table. A friend was over for dinner once when this happened and we all just looked at each other for a fraction of an uncomfortable second. Then Friend, who had several years' more parenting experience than I did, said, "Don't worry about it. He'll be doing that himself by the time he goes on his first date."

It was funny but excellent advice. We are always growing in our lives, and just because you lack a skill at 6 or 16 or 26, It seems you get it if you need it.

But it is hard to let go and see them make mistakes. I'm with you on the laundry. I just refold it in secret.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I think the hardest thing about requiring enough is dealing with the whining that accompanies the requirement! All three of my boys are expected to put away their own clothes (the 2yo has help, the 4yo and 6yo do not) but I'd truly rather do it myself to save my ears the fussing/complaining/whining about how utterly unfair their life is (this mostly comes from the 6yo).

That said, I keep reminding myself how very, very, very glad I am that they all know how to clean up their own toys...and it took time to get them there, too! :)

I'm blessed to have two brothers who cook and clean quite effectively, and are often genuine servants around the house...having seen that, I have a pretty good idea of how I want my boys to turn out!