Encouraging Independence: The Humanism of Philanthropy Versus the Culture of Dependency. How Much Help Is Too Much?

handsIf you’re a parent or you work with kids, you’re probably familiar with the dilemma of independence versus dependence. On one hand you want to encourage children to be as independent as possible for their ages, making decisions and trying new experiences. On the other hand, you want to protect them from the apparently endless bad things that can happen to them. Some of these issue from the society around them; some result from taking risks beyond their capabilities. 

Fast forward to an individual of legal age. It’s nice to think that adults can handle the challenges as well as the benefits of maturity. But if someone experiences a run of bad luck, should we help? I know if my children or grands came down with a catastrophic illness or lost their jobs or had a major expenditure for education or travel, I’d jump right in. 

Still, at some point, would I be doing them a disservice by discouraging them from taking responsibility for themselves?  Various friends and relatives face this issue. A daughter’s employer bottoms up, and she can’t find another position. . .for years. A son’s plumbing must be replaced, and he borrows thousands. . .and never is able to repay the loan. Depression and other emotional challenges can accompany the situation, making action or planning for changes even more difficult. 

Some of my acquaintances seem to take great pride in their support. Other times they express their frustration as well as worry about the situation. They report tip-toeing around the needy person to avoid making them feel like failures. 

Would a swift kick in the butt help? Perhaps. People’s drive for independence, their ability to meet challenges differs greatly. My kids were determined to stand on their own two feet from the time they could walk, probably to escape me. But not everyone’s like this. 

If our ultimate goal is a self-sustaining adult, we should be looking at the help we offer and evaluating if it’s really the help that’s needed. In a crisis, sure, we rush to do all we can. But after weeks or months or years, shouldn’t we discourage dependence? While emotional difficulties aggravate the process, they shouldn’t be a get-home-free card. Getting active mentally or physically can help. Composer Pyotre Tchaikovsky had bouts of severe depression, but his work actually helped him get through those. 

Politics doesn’t clarify the matter, neither do experts. Our attitudes haven’t changed much over 60 years. In West Side Story’s song “Dear Officer Krumpke,” written in the 50s, a gang of punks recite the numerous sociological and psychological reasons why they should be helped, rather than punished for their crimes and wrong-doing; and nothing changes them. The same pop-reasoning still holds sway. 

Rather get caught in that tired old debate of “one answer fits all,” in which political leanings seem to dictate an extreme either-or approach to helping people, we as parents/friends/voters might aim for a broad swath across the middle.  Help people in a crisis, then gradually wean them off both the public dole and the private handout. They’ll gain pride as well as self-sufficiency.

*  For one point of view about welfare and dependency, which, by the way, I don’t agree with, see “Why the U.S. has a culture of dependency,” a CNN opinion piece, by Matthew Spalding, 

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