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At a playground, I watched as a father lifted his two-year-old onto an elevated walkway. He and I were the only two fathers there, and I took it on myself to advise him. “You might not want to do that,” I said. “It’s a little high for him.”

“Oh, he’ll be OK,” said the other Dad. “He’s a tough little kid.” The child ran happily along the walkway, until he found a series of climbing bars going down and grabbed on one to climb.

Next thing we knew he was screaming. The bars were too far apart for him to reach the next one with his feet, and he hung there crying, feet thrashing the air. Unfortunately, before his Dad got to him, he fell and hurt his ankle. Dad picked him up and carried him to the car, saying something about ‘the City should be sued for maintaining this hazard.’

Really? The first rule mothers taught me about playgrounds is, ‘Don’t put your kid up anyplace he can’t reach himself.’ Playgrounds are designed so children can get to things they can handle. If they want to go somewhere they can’t get on their own, no matter how much they beg you, don’t help them. If you do, don’t complain when they get hurt.

I try to keep the playground rule in mind. We can often do much harm trying to help. Giving and accepting help are great; they’re how life should work, but there are skills and attitudes to learn and things to ask before helping. Here are five of them.

1. Do I understand the situation? We once had a 16-year old neighbor who had been sent from Chicago by his mother, to live with his father in SF because he was getting into trouble in at home. He was a nice kid, but he hated San Francisco and would talk constantly about wanting to go home.

A couple of well-meaning neighbors got together and funded a ticket to Chicago for him, without telling his father or mother, and even took him to the bus station. The father was outraged and devastated, because he felt the child was in serious danger from the gangs in his Chicago neighborhood. You have to be careful about when and how to help.

2. Does the person actually want help? The other day, I took my neighbor Sheila and her two-year-old granddaughter Promyce in for the day because their apartment was being fumigated. I took Promyce to the park, and grandma insisted on coming, though she can’t walk far because of emphysema. I was worried about her and kept asking if she was alright or if she needed go back. I was trying to help.

At the playground, built specially for kids under 4, Promyce was having a great time. She rarely gets out because of Grandma’s disability. Sheila hovered around her, not wanting to be out of arm’s reach, even though that required her being in the hot sun and moving more than I had ever seen her do.

I kept going over and asking, “Don’t you want to come in the shade?” “Promyce will be fine without you,” and related comments, which Sheila ignored.

Finally, it dawned on me that I was doing the same thing to Sheila that she was doing to Promyce, offering help that wasn’t needed. I let go, and soon Sheila decided on her own to go back to our building and sit out on the deck. No big disaster, but we annoyed each other trying to give unnecessary help.

Sometimes people, especially children, want to learn to do things for themselves. At an outdoor concert where folding chairs were being set up, an early-arriving grandfather and 3 year old got into a strange dance. The little girl would try to climb onto a chair but couldn’t quite do it. Gramps would pick the girl up and put her in the chair. She’d sit there for a minute, then climb down, walk around and start trying her climb again. But she couldn’t, because grandfather would scoop her up and put her in the chair again. This happened about five times before someone told him, “Look, she doesn’t want to BE in the chair. She wants to be able to do it herself. If she can’t make it today, she will next time. Give her a chance to grow.”

3. Am I the right person to help, or could someone else do it better? Lucy, a friend of my partner Aisha, has been trying to take care of her 85-year-old partially demented mother, who still lives with her healthy 92-year-old husband. The problem is that mother doesn’t approve of Lucy’s lifestyle and doesn’t want her around. Though she cooks, cleans, and shops for them, both mother and father wind up agitated every time she comes over. Finally, her father and brother felt they had to bar Lucy from the house. Her parents needed help, but Lucy wasn’t the one to give it.

4. Do I know how to help? Some people feel they have to open doors for my wheelchair, even if their body takes up the room I need to get through. Or they try to help me transfer by pulling on my arms, which are my only source of strength. Or a loved one “fixes” my wheelchair in ways that don’t actually work, and I have to straighten it out before I can use it. I have been injured or inconvenienced many times by people who thought they had to help me, but didn’t know how.

I’ve been on the other side of that, too. On our first date, Aisha asked if I could iron her blouse for her. All I had ever ironed were handkerchiefs, and I told her I didn’t know how. She told me anyone could do it and gave me a brief instruction, which I misunderstood. It was a polyester top, and I wound up melting it. I said I was sorry, and she laughed and said, “Well, you told me you didn’t know how. I should have believed you.” I still love her for that.

5. Do you have the energy, time and attention to give this person what they need? Or do you come home tired and jump into helping someone with their homework or washing dishes someone else left? I often find myself listening to other people’s problems when I would be better off exercising or taking a nap.

Remember the flight attendant mantra, “Put your own oxygen mask on first.” We definitely don’t want to help when we resent it or feel burdened. People can tell, and they hate feeling responsible for our exhaustion. It’s good to help, and it’s also good to know when to let people solve their own problems. Sometimes, your quiet presence is all the help they need.


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