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
For a neighbor who asks too many favors, asking for tasks done in return or drawing back may be the solution.

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: “When can you pick up the kids tomorrow? I have a meeting.” “I am happy to watch your child tomorrow after school; I need you to watch mine Saturday afternoon when I have an appointment.”

–Dodie Hofstetter

Have you spoken up or asked for similar assists? If the mom obviously needs help, step in and help when you can. But if you’re building a stockpile of resentment, you can decline some requests politely and suggest a reliable babysitter.

–Judy Hevrdejs

Expert advice:

If you believe you’re offering much-needed support to a struggling family — and you feel good about it — there’s 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 doesn’t need, regardless of her station in life, is your resentment.

If you’re not sure how you feel about helping, consider a few angles.

Family therapist Fran Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent” (Palgrave MacMillan), offers this: “You 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.

“I treat many adults who were raised alone,” Walfish says. “They 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.”

On the other hand...

“You have to understand your neighbor is looking for someone to rescue her and she’s viewing you as someone who will bail her out at all times,” says social psychologist Susan Newman, author of “The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It and Stop People-Pleasing Forever” (McGraw-Hill). “It’s time to put some limits and parameters on what you’ll agree to: ‘I can only watch your daughter from 2 to 4.’ ‘I can give her lunch, but she can’t stay here for dinner.’”

And ask for reciprocation, Newman says. “She might have no idea you’re frustrated or what you’re thinking unless you say so and ask for help: ‘Would you let the plumber in my house tomorrow?’”

Or take a straightforward approach and have a heart-to-heart with this neighbor.

“Ask her politely to sit down and talk about it,” Newman suggests. “‘Look, 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.’

“It’s not very different from an adult friendship that you need to get some space from. It’s sort of a gentle pulling back.”

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