Helping a neighbor: When is it too much?
If a child will be affected by you refusing help, is it okay to say no?
Melanie Stetson Freeman
A neighbor frequently asks for help with her elementary-age daughter: rides, baby-sitting, meals. But she never reciprocates. Do you say no, knowing the child is the one who will suffer?
Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors):
Is she a neighbor who really needs help? If so, offer it as one parent to another, hoping someone will be there for you if you and your child need such help in the future. If she is a selfish taker, then she needs some not-so-subtle suggestions from you: âWhen can you pick up the kids tomorrow? I have a meeting.â âI am happy to watch your child tomorrow after school; I need you to watch mine Saturday afternoon when I have an appointment.â
Have you spoken up or asked for similar assists? If the mom obviously needs help, step in and help when you can. But if youâre building a stockpile of resentment, you can decline some requests politely and suggest a reliable babysitter.
If you believe youâre offering much-needed support to a struggling family â and you feel good about it â thereâs no need to keep score here. If you feel taken advantage of and a little ticked, you should find a way to decline her requests. One thing she doesnât need, regardless of her station in life, is your resentment.
If youâre not sure how you feel about helping, consider a few angles.
Family therapist Fran Walfish, author of âThe Self-Aware Parentâ (Palgrave MacMillan), offers this: âYou should continue to be generous and help this defenseless child. Someone else might say that saying no is creating reasonable boundaries, but it all depends on your point of view.
âI treat many adults who were raised alone,â Walfish says. âThey always talk of one special person who saved them psychologically. Perhaps it was a grandmother, uncle, schoolteacher, the parent of a classmate. As a neighbor to this limited mother and her elementary-age daughter, you have the privileged opportunity to be that special person and rescue this child from a world of isolation.â
On the other hand...
âYou have to understand your neighbor is looking for someone to rescue her and sheâs viewing you as someone who will bail her out at all times,â says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of âThe Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Foreverâ (McGraw-Hill). âItâs time to put some limits and parameters on what youâll agree to: âI can only watch your daughter from 2 to 4.â âI can give her lunch, but she canât stay here for dinner.ââ
And ask for reciprocation, Newman says. âShe might have no idea youâre frustrated or what youâre thinking unless you say so and ask for help: âWould you let the plumber in my house tomorrow?ââ
Or take a straightforward approach and have a heart-to-heart with this neighbor.
âAsk her politely to sit down and talk about it,â Newman suggests. ââLook, this is taking a lot of my time, and we need to talk about making it more equitable or somehow finding other coverage for your daughter because I have other responsibilities and things I need to get done.â
âItâs not very different from an adult friendship that you need to get some space from. Itâs sort of a gentle pulling back.â