My Parenting Fail (and why sometimes, trying to help makes things worse)

My Parenting Fail (and why sometimes, trying to help makes things worse) 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

The most important job I have is being a parent. 

I love and adore my kids. And I want them to find success in whatever they do.  

Like most parents, I find it excruciating to watch my kids struggle. 

This brings me to the story I’m going to share with you today. 

This story is about some of my behavior as a parent that I regret. In fact, it took me some time to forgive myself for this one. 

I want to share the story with you because it brought into sharp focus for me something we all likely struggle with in our personal and professional lives.  

Here it goes. 

My youngest son is nearing the end of what has proven to be a long and difficult basketball season. For various reasons that I won’t go into here, he’s struggled for much of the season. 

Basketball is a game and games should be fun when you are a kid. So, it’s felt particularly hard to navigate this situation with him. 

There have been times that he’s wanted to quit. A few weeks ago, it seemed to hit rock bottom for him. 

He was frustrated. He wanted to play better to have a bigger impact on the team. He was having issues with teammates. Things just weren’t going well for him. 

I tried to talk him through it. I tried to offer encouragement. I tried to do everything I could think of to help him. 

I “Helped” Too Much

Then it happened. It was during one of his games. 

As his former coach from his younger years playing, I’ve not fully broken the habit of trying to shout “helpful” instructions to him on the floor. I know that I shouldn’t, but knowing and doing aren’t always aligned unfortunately. 

On this night, at the peak of his struggles, I was being particularly “helpful” from my position in the bleachers. At one point, he turned to me in the middle of the action and shouted to me, “I got it!” 

I knew in that instant that I had failed him. Not only was I not helping, I was actively making things worse. 

Immediately after the game, I apologized to him. He was totally defeated by the entire experience. It was as if I had seen the flames of a bad situation and thrown a bucket of gasoline on them. 

I didn’t sleep that night. I felt awful and couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d failed him.   

The next day we sat down and talked about it. I said I was sorry again for how I behaved and I explained that I wanted to help him. 

As we talked through it, he even used the word “sabotage” to describe my attempt at helping. (That one still stings as I write it.)

I reassured him that I only wanted to help. And then, I asked him what would I could do to be helpful.  

What I learned from his response is that he just needed me to be there and be encouraging (albeit perhaps more quietly). 

Deep down, I knew this all along. But it just didn’t feel like enough. For him, it is. 

That’s when the real insight from all of this hit me. All this unhelpful “helping” was more about my feelings of inadequacy to fix this for him than it was about any particular need my son had. 

My son was working through something hard. What he needed was a champion, some support, and a listening ear. Everything else I was loading on was about me, not him.  

The Lessons Hidden in My Failure

As a manager or leader, it’s easy to get caught up like this If we care about our people. We worry that we aren’t “good enough” as a manager or that we are failing our people somehow. So in our desire to help and feel competent in our job, we do too much (or the wrong thing) to help.  

One of my favorite proverbs is “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” 

This is often interpreted to mean that having good intentions while doing bad things is of no merit. It is only when those good intentions result in good actions that they matter. 

But, I have learned to add a second meaning to this. Our good intentions can lead us to take what feels like good actions, but that yields a bad result. This is equally problematic. 

This is what happened with my son. I wanted to help, I was trying to help, but my well-intentioned actions actually made things worse. #Fail

This same pattern is something I’ve observed with good managers on countless occasions. These are people who take their jobs as managers very seriously and really care about their people. 

They’ve got an employee who’s struggling to meet expectations in some way. So, out of a desire to help, they decide to take some action to help. Often, this help looks and feels like micromanagement or a lack of trust to the employee, thus undermining the relationship and the employee’s confidence. 

As a result, the employee’s performance not only fails to improve, but often gets worse. Or, it temporarily gets better while the employee looks for a new job elsewhere because they no longer want to work for a manager who behaves like this.  

The tragedy in all of this is that it is unnecessary and very easy to avoid.  

How to Help without Hurting

If you’ve been following my work, you know I’ve been writing a lot about compassion. Compassion is a skill we can cultivate to help us respond to suffering in others. 

In short, compassion involves four steps:

  1. Notice – Be aware that another is suffering or struggling.
  2. Feel – Be emotionally moved by the other’s suffering.
  3. Care – Want to see the easing of the suffering.
  4. Act – Readiness to take action to help.

Good managers practice compassion for their people. They pay attention and connect with people to notice when they are struggling. Then, they move to action to help because they care.  

This experience with my son taught me that my understanding of compassion was incomplete. 

You can have a compassionate response to the suffering of others (as I did with my son) and then take the wrong action to help that actually makes things worse for the individual. 

All of us have had this experience in our personal lives, where at some point, we tried to help only to have it backfire. It happens at work all the time too. And because many cultures lack psychological safety, you don’t often hear the feedback that you’ve failed until it’s too late.

Here’s the insight that we need to add to our compassionate response. 

Don’t assume you know what someone else needs. 

When you notice someone is struggling and needs help, don’t assume you know what they need. Take a beat, and rather than jumping to action, get curious. 

Instead of assuming, just ask. It worked with my twelve-year-old son and it will work with the adults you manage and work with. 

One of the best ways to ask this question is something I’ve heard Brené Brown talk about on several occasions. She simply asks this question:

“What does support from me look like for you right now?”

Another way to ask the same question might be, “What could I do that would feel supportive or helpful to you right now?”  

Be prepared that the answer you hear might feel counterintuitive to you. They might need you to do less, to give them some space.  

Just the fact that you noticed they are struggling, expressed your concern, and offered support might be enough to help. 

I’ll never forget what my son said when I asked him what I could do to help. He said, “Just you being there makes me feel more confident.” 

Just show up. And keep showing up. It’s sometimes just that simple.

***

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5 comments
  • Judith Orogun

    Thanks for this, Jason. Interestingly, I am going through a phase in my personal life, where i think I may have been a little too helpful in my family situation. Like you, I learned my lesson quickly and I am growing from that experience. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Steve Whiteford

    Excellent self-awareness! And emotional awareness! Thanks for the reminder that it’s always good to start by imagining how people may feel. Or how they might feel when you give them feedback, paise or challenging news. Then craft your expression to move them to an emotion that meets your true intention and sets them up to be appropriately motivated by that feeling.

    How wonderful that you were so moved by your “fail” and so open to learning from it. Sounds like that created a win for both of you.

  • Sally Sng

    Thanks for sharing your learning, Jason. Like you, I tend to be overly helpful when someone needs support and most of the time, instead of asking what might help, I jumped into giving advice. Whose agenda was that? Mine and filled with assessments! So instead of being helpful by just listening and being there, trying to be the expert is counter-intuitive. Often I find making a distinction between being compassionate and sympathetic makes a difference.

  • Andrea H Gold

    I’ve found that people often resent someone jumping in to help — IF THEY DIDN’T ASK FOR IT. It’s a hard lesson I’ve had to face, too, because I know I come from care and compassion. However, people definitely want that “space” you mentioned in your story. Just being there, and asking what support looks like at the moment is fabulous. Fantastic. Shows respect and confidence in the other person. Good share, Jason. Not a FAIL. The lesson learned is instead a terrific WIN!

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