Parenting and the Golden Rule of Organizing

*I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

When I was in graduate school at Washington University (the one in St. Louis), I had the amazing opportunity to take a class from Ernesto Cortes, lead organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in the Southwest. He came to teach two long weekend seminars on institution-based organizing that Wash U offered as a regular 3-credit course. It was so intimidating that some of the class is still a blur to me, but some snippets of what we talked about still stand out (along with a memory of my mortification when he chose me to model a 1:1 with him in front of the entire class–scary).

One of the things that really hit me as a social worker was his explanation of the ‘golden rule’ of organizing: Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself. Not should do for herself, but can do for herself. Not ‘rarely’ or ‘seldom’, but ‘never’.

I like this rule because, when you first hear it, it sounds so totally common-sense. Of course we should never do things for other people that they can do for themselves, right? Um, except that we do it all the time. As social workers, and, indeed, as people, how often do we take shortcuts, making the phone call ourselves because we’re afraid our client will forget, or answering for a client in a meeting because we’re afraid he doesn’t understand, or staying late to finish a report for a colleague because we’re really good at that.

And, at first, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I mean, we’re social workers. We’re supposed to help people, right? And that means doing helpful things for people, right?

I struggled with this quite a bit in my community and advocacy practice. How is an organizer supposed to know what someone can do for herself? Do we let them try and fail? What if such failure has implications for the whole community, or the whole organization? Where do we draw the line between empowering people and abandoning them? Between paternalistic ‘overdoing’ for people and supportive modeling and guidance? How do we ensure that our interactions with people change as they change and grow? And how do we deal with the fact that sometimes not doing for other people is harder and slower than just getting it done, when our lives and our organizing are so busy?

It was when my oldest son was struggling with his carseat buckle that I made the connection: the same challenges that parents of toddlers face apply to this age-old organizing connundrum. He wants to learn how to unfasten his carseat because he knows that, once he can do it independently, he’ll get to move to the back of the van with his brother or sister. He hates sitting in the middle row by himself, so he’s really motivated to get this figured out (you might say that he has a good sense of his self-interest). As you can imagine, his initial attempts at this have been less than satisfactory. As I’m trying to get the other kids loaded up to get to wherever we’re headed (inevitably late), I find myself facing the same dilemma as when I wondered whether it was fair to ask an undocumented client to speak to the media or someone who spoke limited English to give the introduction…what can he do for himself? What must I do for him? How do we negotiate this in a way that builds his skills and his confidence and, most importantly to an emerging leader and a toddler, enhances his real power?

I don’t have all of the answers for this, in organizing or in parenting. But I know that, when I hit on the right approach as an organizer, people did extraordinary things that they (and, honestly I) were quite unsure they could do. And, as a mom, when my son got the chest strap on his carseat off all by himself and said, “Mom, I’m getting really close to sitting in the backseat!” I know that Ernie Cortes is right. It’s not easy to sit on our hands and do less, but, if we can stand it, we really are doing more.

166 responses to “Parenting and the Golden Rule of Organizing

  1. Pingback: Policy Reform to Make Every Day a Happy Mothers’ Day « Classroom to Capitol

  2. Michelle Williams

    Thank you for giving me new insight. I have done some of those very things you mention above, and all the while, thought I was ‘helping’. Especially when it comes to my boys!

    It is not easy to quelch that part of us that says it’s faster, easier, and better, if I just do it myself. And likely experience has taught us that in some cases it has been faster, easier and better when we did it ourselves. It isn’t in our nature to watch a person fail, client or family, because failure can hurt. As the ‘teacher’ in some aspects, their failure may feel like failure on our part as well.

    Maybe a good place to start is simply by asking what role would they like us to take. If that role doesn’t mesh with our values or the intentions of the community, it will be important to no in a way that doesn’t alienate them. Easier said than done?

    • It IS hard to watch people struggle, and even fail, especially when we have come to care about them! But I am convinced it is no easier to push through alone, watching the faces of those whom we have disappointed by depriving them if the chance to lead, and to succeed. Thanks for sharing your reflections!

  3. As an individual I struggle with patience and perfection and this can easily spill over into my work with communities if I am not careful. It is hard to watch people that I care about stubble and sometimes fall, but watching them rise to the top on their own terms is very rewarding. I think it is important to remember that as social workers we really should be striving to empower people so much that they no longer need us. Ideally we should be working ourselves out of a job. I think sometimes that the field of social services can become caught up in policy and systems that do not allow the communities we serve to do for themselves. It is important to remember in our advocating that we create systems that our clients can navigate.

    • Yes–I love that statement about creating the systems our clients can navigate! When we fulfill our roles, our clients won’t ‘fall’ as often, even when we’re not holding their hands!

  4. Ohhhhhh…. I LOVE THIS. LOVE LOVE LOVE. I work at an EHS/HS center and I have witnessed coworkers (unfortunately from our Social Services department) who would rather exert immense energy combating development of parent expectation over brainstorming ways to be supportive and available to said parents during the transition period. For example, recently the agency began rigidly enforcing the “no admittance after 9:30am” policy. The SS team could’ve spent their time informing parents the the impending change and discovering new obstacles this may raise for potent families, instead they simply argued, “It’s unreasonable and unfair to the families, especially the high needs families. We just placing another barrier in their morning.” The Education department countered that it is more unfair for children to be dropped off at all times of the day because this caused disruptions in classroom climate, routine, and educational goals. (Un)Surprisingly, our families and successfully managed to rise to the expectation placed before them. Yes, it took time, it was a rocky transition, but with patience and gentle enforcement it was accomplished. I can’t decide if the SS team was against it because they truly believed it was too great a burden to place on the families or if they didn’t want to endure the extra work involved in the transition period? Division in golden rule utilization can be toxic for an agency. If the department who does not primarily serve the adult consumer had faith the families “could do” and the team that does primarily serve them didn’t… what does that say about A) their advocacy motivation and B) their attempts to empower versus unintentionally disable? If the primary connection within an agency does not think the population can do it, how is the population ever supposed to believe they can? You know what I mean?

    • I am nodding my head as I read, because we encounter so often in our parenting the importance of being united in our application of this golden rule, too–can you imagine if one parent was always overcompensating for the kids, while the other was expecting them to rise to the occasion? There is so much danger in these ‘soft expectations’, not just that we will deny our clients the chance to surprise themselves (and others) with their successes, but also that we will exhaust our resources unnecessarily, by failing to let clients partner maximally toward our common ends. Thank you for sharing this example from your organization. I am wondering what processes you could put into place, now, that would help the staff and clients learn, together, from these experiences, so that you can have a different approach next time? I wonder how you could help to facilitate those often difficult conversations?

      On Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 12:38 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  5. Kelsea Bedford

    I have never heard of this social work golden rule before! It is so great! I am starting to remember all the times I did things for my clients because I knew it would be so much easier to get it done rather than waiting for them to do it. I also remember getting scolded by coworkers when I did not do certain responsibilities that clients were supposed to do. People I worked with wanted things done quickly, so they would have just rather that I get them done instead of waiting for the clients to take the responsibility and get things done themselves. So I thought that I just needed to get everything done for the clients. I loved the example you used about your son. It got me to thinking that if you always unbuckled your son’s seatbelt, then he would never have learned how to unbuckle it himself. It is the same with our clients. If we are constantly doing everything for them, then they will never learn to become independent and get things done themselves. Thanks for making me see things in a new light!

    • Yes, and, perhaps even more importantly, they are denied the chance to learn what they can do, a self-realization that is probably more valuable than any transmitted skill. I hope this helps you start conversations with your coworkers about what empowerment looks like, and how doing less can be more!

  6. Yvonne, I loved your example of “families rising to the expectation…” I love the idea that we think highly of those we serve, and assume that they can meet the challenges they are faced with. The “don’t do for others what they can do for themselves” is a great reminder for me! Overparenting is exhausting and so it sounds like “over-socialworking” is as well! In teaching they had a similar idea- “if you are working harder than the student, then they are not learning anything…” encouraging teachers to step back and let the students participate more actively in their learning process.

    This made me think of how often I don’t do things that are uncomfortable (so I don’t want to do them), and I have others do them, but I am totally capable of doing it myself!! I am identifying with this human nature that is present in our clients, and I have a perfect example- yesterday my car died while I was at my daughters soccer practice. Now I can’t even count how many times I have had to have my car jump started, I have the cables in the back, and yet I have NEVER done it myself!! Ridiculous right? I always say “I can never remember which color goes where” on the battery, and ask someone to help me do it every time. So some nice dad did it for me yesterday. Yet if I did it just ONCE myself, I would never forget how to do it.

    I have some good (and probably totally annoying) lines for my kids when they ask me to do something I think they can figure out themselves: “How do you want to handle that?”, ” I trust that you can do it, ” or “what do you think your options are here?”

    I totally needed a social worker standing next to me yesterday by my dead care to say, “So, Megan, how would you like to handle that? I trust you can figure it out.” I could have used my phone to look up how to jump start a car, done it myself, and been totally empowered and never had to ask for help to do it again. Lesson learned 🙂

  7. Great point, Megan! Yes, how often would we benefit from some skilled social work intervention in our own lives! It’s a great example, too, of how easy it is to fall into patterns of assuming that someone can’t do something, or, perhaps even more commonly, just taking the easier way out and doing for someone else (or letting someone do for us!), instead of applying what we have learned about what builds long term capacity. This is where keeping the end in mind (another parenting wisdom) is so critical, in revealing how today’s ‘easy out’ really isn’t, in the long run!

  8. Jessica Patterson

    In my work as a case manager this golden rule often came up while working with consumers. Not just in direct service but also discussion productivity expectations with leadership. How does one empower consumers to do those things on their own when that time is needed to meet standards and essentially make money. Staff would often challenge the extreme focus leadership placed on meeting productivity standards by asking how to balance meeting productivity while also not creating dependence. Often leadership would suggest cold calling consumers to fill gaps left by those that did not keep their appt time and yet staff would not, concerned that “begging” for time when really none was needed b/c the person was living their life could foster more dependence on the center and often staff felt that not fostering dependence was more important than meeting numbers. Not downplaying that I, myself, did not struggle with making that phone call to ensure Susie Q had her ride set up for work so that I would’t have to “deal” with the ensuing crisis if she lost her job wasn’t also a part of the job but I often feel there is another side to the reason those in direct service may overwork for our clients, rather then letting them struggle and fail.

    • Wow–great points, Jessica! Talk about unintended consequences of a policy decision–how troubling that organizations could be making money at the expense of client empowerment. Thanks for highlighting this conflict.

  9. Dawn Clendenen-Moon

    After reading this and all the replies, I’m sold on the golden rule as it applies to social work and to parenting! I love the fact that it’s so simple, straightforward and so very true. I feel like I need to print it out and stick it to my computer and refrigerator. I’ve certainly been guilty of breaking it under the guise of being helpful, yet as I’ve learned many times over, doing things for other people that they can do for themselves can actually do more harm than good and be detrimental to your overall goals. Melinda, I think your comment about long-term capacity speaks to this. To use a parenting example, if I always tie my youngest’s shoes for him because it’s faster for me to do it in the mornings, he’ll never have the opportunity to learn to do it for himself and won’t gain the independence he desires (that would ultimately benefit me as well!). It also robs him of the feelings of accomplishment and self reliance that come along with learning to do something for himself that he hasn’t done before. Similarly, working with youth, if I always made their appointments for them, what incentive is there for them to do it themselves? It’s easy to be short sighted in these instances to just get things done but if our goal is self-sufficiency, then letting them do for themselves is the only option. I think we also have to be cautious because we can end up sending a subtle message to our clients that we lack confidence in their abilities if we are always stepping in.

    When it comes to organizing, I think sending the message through our actions and how we interact with people in the community would be especially important. Knowing when to step back and letting the people most directly impacted take ownership of their cause seems like it would be key to your goal and overall success.

    On a side note, I had to look up Ernesto Cortés to find out who he is. I read about some of his pioneering accomplishments in community organizing. What an opportunity to have him as an instructor!

    • Yes, Dawn, it has so many applications in parenting and in organizing, and I like the idea of putting it on the refrigerator, because it is easy to forget, especially when it just sometimes seems (temporarily) easier to just do something ourselves!

  10. I love this post!

    True: It is not easy (or even natural) to sit on our hands and do less. If I’m being honest with myself, this is one of greatest personal and professional developmental areas where I’ve been growing over the past two years. Further, it has led to my infatuation with sustainability. Not only do I agree with the golden rule presented by Ernesto Cortes, it is an essential component to less burnout and turnover within our profession. Once the theory of not doing for others what they can do for themselves is employed, it removes a self-inflicted burden that I once placed on myself. For me, that burden triggered a higher feeling of anxiety and depression, which completely negated the work which I wanted so much to do. Even more, I was not doing justice to my students (at that time I was teaching middle school in the urban core). What skills were they gaining by depending on me to help them get through their situations? There was no empowerment. There was no confidence building. There was no establishing of self-advocacy. By not being aware of the power of this rule, I disserved my kids and totally drained myself.

    Now that I’ve developed this skill over the past couple of years, I’m more aware of its direct correlation to sustainability. Here is a great example: Recently, I had a former student locked up. This student was considered my “school child”. He is smart, self-motivated, grateful, and full of life. The call I received from jail and speaking to his mother broke my heart. Today, his status is still a little blurry for me. I get phone calls from jail, but I’m unable to answer them. I’ve made a conscious decision to keep my distance from the situation because there is nothing I can do about it, really. I told him how much I still believe in him and that he is much better than the situation he is in. I know I have to let him and his family work through this. I’m not abandoning him, but I am creating distance. If someone were to call me tomorrow and ask me to testify to his character in court, I would. What I can’t do, however, is allow such a situation to consume me or my life. By working it out in my absence, he will grow and learn and I will be able sustain myself in my current roles.

    Ultimately, we have to examine enabling versus empowering through this golden rule. We have to know our locust of control and how to operate within its boundaries. We also have to know it is a process that takes time to learn and employ.

    • Such a powerful example, Samantha, and a great point about how our own feelings (anxiety, yes, but also martyrdom), triggered by overworking for clients, can get in the way of the helping relationship and end up, then, reducing the extent to which we can really help those we intend. It’s a process, though, in parenting as in social work. There are definitely days when I take the shortcut of doing for, instead of empowering, but I know that, in the long run, it’s no bargain. Thanks for your comment!

      On Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 3:44 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  11. Tracie Haselhorst

    I really enjoyed this blog and have done the same thing so many times, especially at work. I have never heard of this as the golden rule but it is totally true. I have always been a very impatient person but have learned to be patient when my daughter was born. Before she was born, I was always doing things for clients that I knew they could do but they were either scared, did not want to do it or thought I was suppose to be doing it for them. It becomes much easier and quicker to make the phone call or complete the paperwork so that we know that it actually gets done. I would become easily frustrated and then just do it for them. Often times in my work experience, clients do not feel empowered to complete the tasks to help them through their recovery process. I have learned over the years and with the changes in the agency that it is important for case managers to empower our clients and to assist them with learning the skills to do what they could not think they could do. Also to assist client with processing why they felt it was best for the case manager to do it for them. I have continued to work on educating clients on the importance of empowerment and being successful with completing tasks on their own. I often discuss the importance of being independent from the mental health center.

    I have always been a fast past worker, so when my daughter was born I had to learn how to slow down and take a deep breath. It was a very important lesson for me when my daughter became older and wanted to do things on her own. I have also learned throughout this process that mistakes will be made and providers need to be a support if that happen. However, it is so rewarding when clients tell you that they had done something on their own that they did not think they could do. My find my job very rewarding by seeing the progress of my clients on a day to day basis.

    • Yes, Tracie–there’s really something to that idea that the victories that are the most awaited also feel the sweetest, no? There is something so satisfying about seeing someone you care about–in any context–achieve something that he/she doubted she could do…and to know that your effort to hold yourself back was part of the equation in her success!

      On Mon, Apr 21, 2014 at 9:42 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  12. Melinda, I love this post!! 🙂 I too agree that Cortes is right. This does make total sense. I think we actually may be more oblivious to how much we do guide our clients to doing things for themselves. However, I also do feel, as social worker, we still take on a lot of what we know our clients should be doing, out of fear. We want our clients to reach their goals and do these things of which we may think are small, or even big, but they see different out of fear. For example, like you said, making that important phone call for them because they may forget. It’s good to hear that other social workers, even after years of experience, still struggle with this. I know it’s a learning process for us all and it can take time. At least we can be more aware of it. I feel that if we are not aware of these things and we continue to do these things then are we really being as competent as we can be for our clients? Maybe we would need to re-evaluate ourselves as social workers to see what changes we need to make in order to help the client not be “forgetfull” in making that phone call.
    Thanks for sharing, Melinda!

  13. Nicole Olivier

    I also work with individuals with developmental disabilities as a Support Coordinator offering resources and assisting individuals and families self direct or determine supports needed to meet their potential. It truly depends on the individual whether there is space to give to empower them to make decisions. As I find most of the time, families are quick to make decisions even when not the guardian and without giving the individual time to really consider their options. I do my best to advocate for their rights to choose their own supports. I also often run into the dilemma of doing tasks for the families and/or individuals to stay within deadlines. Especially, if beyond deadlines for needs like Medicaid applications when family allow it to lapse. I agree with the golden rule to “Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself. Not should do for herself, but can do for herself”. However, I see it is not always best practice to implement this ideal as their are consequences

    • That’s a really important point, Nicole, when agency policies (dictated, in this case, by a third-party payer) can actually make it hard to allow clients to do for themselves, because of the consequences that can ensue. Thanks for your comment!

  14. Due to the similarities of our position, Jessica’s post really resonated with me. There is one gap in here that I would like to address- that when we work with kids, and the parents are expected to do the things that should be done, and we don’t step in, and it doesn’t get done, then the kids suffer. I do agree with this ideology, absolutely. In practice however with families, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable that the children might be the ones experiencing the consequences from parents failing to call the doctor like they promised, or putting money on their lunch card, or helping with homework or a school project, or any number of examples. Again, we can’t parent for them we must model and teach so that they can do this themselves, but if one of my clients looks at me and says that his mom continues to forget to provide him with the winter coat we have talked about over and over, I can’t see myself not stepping right past this and getting him a coat myself. If I tell a client where to get their animal vetted, and assist them with locating resources for them to follow up, and I continue to come over and see a sick animal, then what? I will not continue to allow another life to suffer in someone else’s hands. What would be the right thing to do in this situation? Other opinions, go!

    • Great point, Sarah–here, as in all social work, we need to be clear about who our ‘client’ is, who we are really trying to develop, and where we need to prevent harm (and how). Great points, absolutely.

      On Sat, Apr 26, 2014 at 4:56 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  15. I find myself reliving my son as he grew up. How funny, with his disabilities he always would fight with me about the littlest things, such as what he was going to wear to what color the sky was. I got to where I would give him a choice the night before you can wear this or this. So all through his life there was choices he had to make for himself.
    But now in my job, I had someone come up to me a few weeks ago and said Lisa, you need to stop doing the other counselors work. They take their lunches and they leave on time. Really??? I just felt so used when it took someone else to point out this to me. I try so hard to help out that I tend to help too much when it comes to my co-workers. Now my clients and son, I realize that it takes sometimes making those mistakes to make the right choices later on.
    I will watch my closely to the co-workers and stop trying to help too much when it is me that stays the 10-12 hour shift.

    • I am glad that these parallels are helpful for you. I would say, too, that it’s not even the hours you’re working that matters the most, although the number of hours you’re putting in absolutely can be a good proxy/indicator of when you’re overworking. Where I think social workers can get into trouble, for themselves, their organizations, and their clients, is when we’re doing things that we really shouldn’t be, that don’t nurture our souls or even add net value, because they are things that other people should be doing (maybe that’s your coworkers, but more likely it’s clients)…I have always worked long hours but been protected against burnout because the ‘extra’ is an additional project that I’m excited about or a time-sensitive campaign that I’m pushing through or some time-intensive but really rewarding collaboration. To me, that’s fundamentally different than the corroding effect of always compensating and over-performing. What do you think?

      On Sat, Apr 26, 2014 at 8:34 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  16. This is such a great editorial because it is something we all struggle with. When working with children, it is much easier to keep them safe and do the hard things for them so they don’t have to suffer. But in reality, we all have to learn how to suffer through things such as when lunch is late and we are starving, waiting in a line to a preferred activity or simply watching a loved one slowly give up their life. So when you are talking about community organizing or advocacy, I think that we need to help people find their own motivation. Like in a neighborhood watch program, most parents would be motivated to provide a safe place for their children to grow up or a homeowner who would like to feel safe in their own home. As I have always commented before, the human spirit is amazing and when it finds something worth fighting for, there is no limit to its ability to achieve success or give someone the needed persistance in their quest even in the most depressing circumstances. I usually like to get to know what drives people to do the things they do. When my children were young, I was motivated to work hard in order to give them the things that they needed but as I age, I work for the things that I want and by all means “need” such as a good retirement. But I believe that there is another important aspect to accomplishing great things and that is the belief that you have value. My children gave me value when I looked into their eyes and saw how they depended on me and it helped increase my ability to keep going. Recognizing other people’s strengths can give them a sense of value which is a huge motivator to keep going when things seem bleak. Getting people to pay this forward can start a movement of community wellbeing!

    • Absolutely, Mary! I think that we can far too easily leap to the conclusion that people are ‘apathetic’, when the truth is that we may have not tapped into their motivation or found an ‘ask’ that really resonates with them. That obviously says way more about us than about them, so we need to really think about how we might activate their passions, before concluding that they don’t care. Thanks for your comments.

      On Sun, Apr 27, 2014 at 9:29 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  17. Stephanie McGuire

    Melinda I completely agree with Cortes. I think it is much harder to let clients express their self determination when you are invested in the relationship and want to see them succeed. This is something that I am becoming aware of in my work with clients and am continuously evaluating my client interactions to make sure I am not trying to take control and complete the work for the client to streamline the process. I strongly believe that we all learn from our mistakes and by letting a client work through their failures on their own we are setting them up to handle crisis on their own without the need of a social worker. When my son was little I was always quick to help him put a puzzle together or stack his blocks together and I did it without realizing what I was doing. Once I stepped back I saw that he could do things on his own and now he is independent and doesn’t need a lot of direction.

  18. I love this post! We all need this reminder daily I think. It is easy to get focused on time limits and what needs to be accomplished that we forget that more can be accomplished in the future if we let clients try on their own. I do believe that if it is not harmful, we should let clients try and fail. Sometimes we don’t know what they are capable of and it is important to give them the opportunity and build off of their efforts and strengths. I work with kids so it may be a little different, but I preach to my kids that I like “effort not perfection”. It’s important for clients to try and try again and to be able to see their progress first hand. I have a child at home with special needs and there are many times I want to do things for him because he gets so frustrated when it’s hard. But when he experiences the joy of succeeding after many, many tries, I would never want to take that away from him. Really as social workers, we need to empower the clients that we serve, not enable them. They don’t need to feel like we did the work for them, they need to feel that their hard work paid off.

    • Great point, Sasha–it’s not always the case that encouraging our clients to do for themselves will work out wonderfully…but that’s OK, too. There’s an important concept of ‘failing small’, where people are allowed to experiment and to fail when the stakes are not quite so high, so that we can develop our competencies and, we hope, avoid failing on a really epic scale. But we are too often afraid to even let little failures happen. Great reminder!

      On Tue, Apr 29, 2014 at 10:25 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  19. Thank you for this post, Melinda. I often think about this issue (as a parent and as a professional). In my practicum work with people who have been diagnosed with serious illness, it sometimes feels like the least you can do is to fill out a financial assistance application or schedule a ride for someone. Sometimes they are overwhelmed by their diagnoses and treatments. They may have appointments scheduled every day for the next several months. Maybe if I do x, y, or z for them, they will feel some relief.
    I try to remember, though, that it’s important for people to maintain a sense of self-efficacy. Instead of assuming that it would be most helpful for me to do something, I remind myself to ask clients how I can be most helpful. I try to think of myself as a facilitator and a source of information, instead of always being the doer. Some clients do want me to do things for them that I know they can do for themselves. I encourage them to do those tasks, but if it seems like they’ve reached a point of not being able to add one more task to their list, I will help.
    In each situation, we have to weigh the reasons for and the consequences of doing or not doing something.

  20. Kendra Swartz

    I’m not in the social work field yet (or a mother) but I am a nanny and I have some limited experience coaching sports, and I can see how this saying would definitely ring true across all of these areas. What I’ve found with children is that sometimes it’s at least as important to let them try as to make sure they succeed. I think in social work the idea of letting someone fail is scary–because it means we’re not doing our jobs, and it might mean there are serious consequences for their lives if they fail–and that seems a lot bigger than working with children. But I don’t think that stopping them from failing is the right way to look at things. When I work with children, the goal is always to teach them, to let them explore, and to keep them safe while they do it. Sometimes this means letting them fail; letting them learn that what they’re trying isn’t going to work is at least as important as teaching them the right way to do it. If they never learn to figure it out themselves, the lessons just don’t stick as well. That being said, my job is to guide them, and to put obstacles in front of them so that they can learn to overcome them, and to catch them when they fall and set them back up to try again. It means constantly re-assessing them and understanding what they know and what the next step is, and what they are capable of doing and trying without me. And that’s the way I feel I want to work with people in social work (not just because I’d like to continue working with children). I want to help people learn how to do all these things for themselves, so that they don’t need my help later on.

  21. Meghan Iacuzzi

    This point hits home in an extremely uncomfortable way. It makes perfect sense and is something I’ve known all along, but at the same time, I continue to habitually undermine the abilities of others under the guise of “helping.” I do this in my professional work as well as with my five year-old son. It is uncomfortable because when forced to think about my struggle to stand on the sidelines, I realize that my “helping” is selfishly motivated. It is often quicker and easier to do things myself. It is less stressful because I know I do not have to worry about it later. I don’t have to remember to follow up to make sure something was done and completed correctly. The last couple years I began to have concerns about my son’s independence. He gives up too easily and for too long I allowed him to. I do the same at work. I assume my clients do not know how to function independently either. And so comes Meghan to the rescue. I know I need to be more conscientious about my motivations both as a social worker and parent. I believe too often I hinder more than I help.

    • It’s a constant struggle for me, too, Meghan–probably even more so at home than in practice, where I seem to more immediately see the true costs of ‘overdoing’ for my students, for example, or my consulting clients, while the temptation to rescue my kids is really strong. I think we can work in the right direction by really celebrating those moments when we let go and they really fly…and then trying to remind ourselves of those victories when we feel ourselves wanting to step in.

      On Mon, May 5, 2014 at 8:00 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


    • Sandra Yoder

      I totally agree with you here Meghan. I felt increasingly guilty as I read through this post, but in a good way because now I know I can change this aspect of my practice for the better. Honestly, I would say I do a pretty great job of fostering my son’s independence and I am always so excited when he learns to do something new without my assistance (on the occasions that I don’t let impatience get the best of me, at least). I am pretty ashamed to say that I haven’t applied this same understanding to my clients and students. I think I’ve been especially paternalistic this past semester as I’ve helped my patients at practicum enroll in insurance plans. In part it’s because this stuff is all new, to myself and especially to many of my clients who have never had any type of insurance before. However I should have shown more confidence in their abilities to take care of certain things on their own. Too many times I offered to call the Marketplace or the insurance companies on behalf of my clients, or to type for them or write down their password so they wouldn’t forget. How many of my clients did I totally underestimate in this process and lose them opportunities to try doing these new things on their own? This is something I will definitely be more aware of in the future.

  22. I love the quote that this post is centered around ad fully agree with this post! Although I will admit that no matter how strongly I believe in this concept, it is rather difficult to practice it without having to work hard at it. Being the helpful social workers that we are, it does seem easier to do some things for clients to help them out. But i learned in practicum really quick this year that I am not willing to do more for a client than they are willing to do for themselves. I had some experiences where my client was fully capable of doing something, but had no motivation and expected me to do it for them. I came to terms fast that I was teaching them nothing if I did everything for them. After all, aren’t we supposed to model, coach, and show them what to do—how else would they learn something? I know I learn better when someone walks me through the steps instead of doing it for me.
    I really love the anecdote referring to a child’s determination to do things on their own. My nephew is the same way and will get very frustrated if he is adamant on doing something and I try to do it for him. Thinking of this really helped me to related it back to clients. If only clients were more adamant on doing things on their own instead of relying on us to do everything for them.

    • Is it possible, though, that grown-ups have lost that insistence on independence because we have (maybe unintentionally) coached them out of it? How can we help them to rediscover the joy of autonomy?

  23. This is so true Melinda. Whether as a Social Worker helping a client or in any other type of role, i.e… Parent, or other professional role, we need to allow for self-determination. We get in the way of personal empowerment when we do what your professor described, “Never do for others what they can do for themselves” It takes away their power. It is OK to allow individuals to struggle in accomplishing a task, because from the struggle Individuals learn and gain self-efficacy in areas needed.
    I was advised in several of my SW courses to never work harder than your client. I did not fully understand this statement at the time, now I understand that can serve as a disservice to our clients. By the way, I have six grandchildren and I allowed them the opportunity to buckle their seat belts, because I allowed for self-determination (Their parents always did it for them) they were surprised to see their children doing this. At an early age we seek out ways to be independent and to build up our self-esteem and efficacy. It makes perfect sense now! Ah ha!

  24. First of all, I would like to say,I thought it really humorous that YOU were horribly intimidated by someone. I would have thought that nothing could intimidate you. I do like your point that we should not do for the client what they can do for themselves. I have heard many times that you should never work harder than your client and this seems to be a similar rule. The question I have about this rule is, what if the client can do it but only under certain circumstances and with some help? For example, your son can do it on his own, but believes he cannot and therefore needs some reassurance? What if a mother CAN take care of her children but in order to keep her job needs someone to watch her children and can’t afford daycare but does not qualify for the state to pay for it? Sometimes our jobs as social workers, and parents, is to create an environment in which the child or client CAN do something. I think it is important to remember, we aren’t supposed to sit on our hands and do nothing. We are suppose to help, but not by doing, by offering supports in order for the client to realize their own goal. In this way, we can be encouraged that we do “help” but we do not DO what the client can do themselves.

    • That’s a great point, Charity. I would say that the key lies, then, in how we define ‘can’. I mean, it’s not really relevant, what someone could do in an ideal world with all of the right supports, if those things don’t exist or aren’t available. By the same token, if we can support someone in such a way that they ‘can’ do something they might otherwise not be able to, then aren’t we really just facilitating their independence? That might mean reassurance, it might mean advocacy to create the space, it might mean practice or coaching or even getting them started…the essential piece is to stop where and when they can pick up!

      On Tue, May 6, 2014 at 12:17 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


  25. This is a great rule to live by, especially as a social worker. I work as a case manager for children struggling with their mental health. I try to establish this boundary when first meeting with clients and their parent(s)/guardian(s). I like to tell them that change is up to them and the effort that they are willing to put into treatment will reflect the amount of change they will see as a result. It would not be helpful for me to do all the work for them because the purpose of our services is to be fired from the family and clients that we work with due to them no longer needing us. This sounds harsh but I try to keep in mind that we as social workers are always working to empower clients so that they no longer need our assistance. The longer we enable them by doing things for them the harder it will be for them to see the need for change is there. I do find myself advocating for my clients a little too much in school meetings. I just want the school to be able to see how the diagnosis is interfering with functioning and to increase education on mental health disorders and how they are perceived. My teenage clients especially struggle with schools and parents thinking that behaviors are intended, done on purpose, and if the kid wanted to control their behaviors, they would. I am starting to see that it is my job to teach these clients appropriate and respectful ways to share these thoughts with others, rather than just fighting for them.

    • So smart of you, Kim, to set these expectations from the very beginning, instead of trying, later, to insist that clients do for themselves and stand on their own! Your clients are lucky to have you in their lives, and I know you feel the same.

      On Tue, May 6, 2014 at 4:00 PM, Classroom to Capitol wrote:


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  27. This is sooooooo me! I am constantly doing for others. Like the old adage “If you want it done right, do it yourself.” It is so hard for me to say no when I can get it done faster and more efficiently myself. I did not think of that translating over to my clients for social work but now that I look back it is totally true! Where do we draw the line. Yes, my client can call apartment places on her own. Does she? NO. Do I do it for her knowing that she must be out of her apartment in 60 days. YES. I’ve tried to empower her. Do I just let her fail and become homeless. NO. My job is to make sure she is not homeless. Oh the dilemmas. At the same time, I love these dilemmas. I enjoy looking at myself and how I can grow with my clients. I have already learned so much about myself here in my first year of social work practicum and I continue to look forward about learning more.

    • How do you talk with your clients, Emily, about these dilemmas? How do they see them? I mean, I wonder how it might feel different, to you, if you knew that they see them, variously, as overstepping your bounds, or, conversely, as helping them with a task they see as insurmountable? Have you asked? Could that conversation make the difference, such that they view you as a resource that they’re activating, rather than you taking over where they are deficient?

  28. I actually just wrote my reflection paper on this topic for my practicum. I have found myself making the phone calls and taking charge more than what I should and in the end it does not help anyone. I would better serve my clients by guiding them but having them help themselves. Like Emily said, my job is also to make sure the client is not homeless so if they are still homeless after the short period they are in the program, then I feel like I have failed and should have done more. I always offer to assist them in searching for apartments and filling out the applications but I have never taken over as far as that goes. It is mostly with making phone calls in regards to financial assistance that I have a tendency to say, ‘ok I will call this place and take care of it.’ When in fact I should be saying, ‘ok well you call this place and let me know how I can help.’ I have been guilty of doing this with my child as well but I have been more aware of it with her than I had been with my clients.

    • Oh, yes, Tina, on so many levels, yes! We so often ‘overdo’ for others…sometimes, the more we care, the more we overcompensate in this way. And it can be hard: we feel like we have ‘failed’ when we don’t do enough, but we may struggle to see the failures (just as real) that result from doing too much! At the same time, each client is different, so we need to assess what’s an appropriate and empowering level of support, v. what’s disempowering. How do you ‘check yourself’ in this arena? What are the indicators that help you know how much is too much? What can you do to fight this tendency?

  29. I struggle with this on a daily basis, both as a case manager and as a mom. And part of my challenge is often times, they (my client and my children) ask for me to do it for them. I sometimes respond to that question with some sort of phrase about how I would really like for them to try it on their own first. And (sometimes), I explain why. A regular example in my work is clients call me asking for help to schedule an appointment at a medical clinic. Many of our clinics have Spanish-speaking staff. And other clinics, I think, need to hire Spanish speaking staff. So, when clients call me and ask for help scheduling an appointment, I ask them to try and call to schedule the appointment on their own first. I tell them that the reason is because if I always call and make the appointment for them, the clinic staff will think they do not NEED the bilingual staff to answer the phone because Spanish-speaking patients never call! So, I encourage clients to call to schedule their own appointment and to call me back or text me to let me know that they scheduled it or if they ultimately do need help.

    That is a relatively simple and short task. But, I get similar questions regularly for other types of help. Honestly, it is usually centered around either a language barrier or not understanding the ‘system.’ I think I will try asking responding to their request with a question… “can you do this task on your own?” If the answer is “yes,” great! I will encourage them to do so and to let me know if they need my assistance. If the answer is “no,” I can follow up with a question about “what parts of it are they not able to do?” Perhaps, we can break the task down into parts they can do on their own and parts they need my assistance completing. Breaking the task into parts may even make it appear more doable for them to complete the majority of it on their own. Sometimes, the end goal seems so far out there that figuring out where to start is a big, first step.

    I think this addition to my discussion with clients may help to take some of the burden off of me and also help clients to understand the power they have to complete tasks for themselves and their families on their own.

  30. Oh, Kendra, I struggle with this, too! Breaking things into component tasks is a great strategy, helpful for ourselves as well as for others. It can give us important insights about the parts of important challenges that are really obstacles for clients, so that we can focus our advocacy on dismantling those. And remember that you’re teaching your clients something really important when you help them understand WHY they need to call for themselves–you’re helping them to see how social change works, what organizations respond to, and how they can advocate for themselves. Even if you end up having to make the appointment, there’s significant residual value in that conversation that your, “Can you?” question sparks!

  31. I totally agree with what you pointed out here. Sometimes doing for some else what he/she can do for him/herself is efficient in light of limited time or his/her limited skills. However, when we do what they can do on behalf of them, they will not learn the process and will sit behind you all the time. They will take it for granted. Next time when we say, “I am sorry you may try it on your own this time”, they will get mad because they think we are not supportive anymore. I am not saying people do not appreciate our advocating for them, but sometimes it is easy for them to forget this is what they passion about. Doing what they can do will increase their feelings of the ownership of the project. And yes, people are afraid of stepping out of the comfort zone or are just too lazy to do so (It does not happen to everybody, but it is human nature for many of us).

    Overprotection will undermine their capability to grow. We learn many things from doing so. And the process they experience will teach them how they can handle the similar situation by themselves next time. There is a Chinese twisters saying “giving people fish is not so good as teaching them how to fish.” When we encourage the consumers to do what they can do, we are teaching them to advocate for themselves and to be more independent.

    I have to say, it is easy to say than done. I rarely ask my colleagues for help if I can do by myself. However, when clients or colleagues ask me for help and I know they can do it on their own, I still feel mortified to say no. I have to admit that is my personal bias. I would love to practice showing them how to fish instead of giving them fish or at least say why not you give it a shot at first.

  32. I think that last paragraph you wrote is really important, Yan. When we ‘overdo’ for others, we’re not only limiting their ability to exercise their own agency; we’re also sending a damaging message (if we’re honest with ourselves!) about what we perceive as the limits of their abilities. We’re failing not only to empower, but really to respect, them, asking far less of them than we would want others to expect of us. How can we overcome this tendency, given that it is, as you point out, easier said than done? What structures in our organizations can reduce these temptations?

  33. Sarah Thompson

    I like this! I value my time and getting things done quickly and catch myself helping necessarily to usually benefit myself. Professionally, I agree that doing less a lot of times can be more helpful. Personally, I look back and have a deeper appreciation for things I have completed on my own or with less help. So I can imagine that clients would feel the same way and hopefully fuel their fire to continue growing. But there is the question of knowing how much and where to give help. We will never fully know what someone is capable of doing, especially as they grow. How do I even expect to figure out where to back off as they grow or if I even should in some cases? What happens if people regress do to our engagement being less than what we started with? This won’t work for everyone. But bigger picture, I think it works positively with most people.

    • These are good questions…I guess I just see that social workers are much more likely to overdo for people than to totally abandon them, so I think we need to guard against what is the greater risk, if that makes sense? Of course social workers, community organizers, advocates need to be there to support clients when they need it…but we also need to get comfortable with the fact that that won’t happen nearly as often as we might expect!

  34. I try to have a rule of thumb to not use the words ‘never’ or ‘always’ because inevitably (in my experience) you will be proven wrong. Although, your point is a good point to be made; I fall back to my aforementioned rule . In life when we do things for others then how will they possibly ever be able to do for themselves. It reminds me of the old adage ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. Despite this being all so true, sometimes some people cannot possibly learn how to fish in that moment, and they just need a fish. When working in a community setting I think it would be nearly impossibly to see all the reasons a person could not do for themselves in particular moment.

    Your reflections of this conundrum towards parenthood rang so true. How do you balance teaching/ gentle modeling without overdoing for our children? Honestly…I think this is the million dollar question that good parents have been struggling with since the dawn of man. I know that sometimes I overdo for my kids, and I justify it with ‘I want to’ or ‘We have to be somewhere’ or ‘They are only kids’. To be truthful…I will probably always ‘do’ for them when they could probably do for themselves. On the converse…I spend a great deal of time teaching, using gently modeling, explaining, etc. Like I said, I think this balancing act is as old as mankind.

    The balancing act also has to happen in other facets of our lives. We cannot realistically say ‘never’ nor ‘always’, but we can learn how to balance between doing for others and teaching others. I think this starts with professional boundaries and also being competent with your audience. I think as a person grows both personally and professionally, then they become more proficient in that balancing act.

  35. I like your reminder not to say ‘never’ or ‘always’, Kendra, because it also reminds us to be gentle with ourselves…for the times when we do more than we should…and the times when we probably don’t do enough…and the times in between when we’re just left second-guessing. It’s not an exact science, and intentions should absolutely count for something, and we deserve the space to learn and try and fail, just as we must afford that to others. Thank you for your comment!

  36. Guilty guilty guilty, I need this quote posted to my desk, I actually think it will be next week. As a new parent to a four year old and social worker I do this all the time. In a personal mission statement I just made a statement about doing less and supporting more. People, kids, and colleagues surprise me all the time with what they are capable of and I need to work on letting them continue to do so. I think about a time I asked for help but didn’t receive it and how great I felt when I accomplished the task at hand. My issue however is in ethics how do we know that when we don’t help a client and urge them to help themselves this is not going to cause greater harm. This is always my dilemma, if I help them I know they will be ok. Sure we have all failed and it has taught us something, but watching people fail, people you feel responsible for is hard. The other issue I run into is time, the time it might take me to accomplish what needs to be done and the time it may take a client can be detrimental in nature. I don’t want to enable but I want to be affective. This quote definitely makes me think and reframe how I practice. I think I am good at meeting people in the middle but not letting them go all the way. I will continue to strive to for some clarity to the unknown and let people amaze me.

  37. I love your statement, Emily, about how often we’re pleasantly surprised by what others can do! And I appreciate what you said about wanting to make sure that people are ‘okay’, too…and thinking about what it means to really be ‘okay’, short-term versus long-term. Which ‘intervention’, on our part, is most likely to lead to ultimate well-being? And, yes, of course, it takes a lot longer for others to accomplish these tasks on their own, often…but some things that are really valuable do take a very long time.

  38. I too am guilty of all of the above! I was never an over protective mother and both of my sons had their share of bumps, bruises and stitches. But following some very traumatic events, I watched depression engulf my youngest. He was 16 by the time I recognized the symptoms were more than typical behaviors associated with being a teenager. After he verbally expressed suicidal ideations, I promptly found a psychiatrist. This period of time was the scariest period of my life. My son is the reason I want to be a clinical social worker. I thought – piece of cake … I got this! I had so many “aha” moments during my undergrad career. I couldn’t wait to share what I learned with my son with the hopes to enlighten him (even though he was under the care of a psychiatrist and on medication for the depression). I just kept being the helpful mom, the mom with the positive attitude mixed with “you just relax, I got this” with regard to my kiddo. Then I got a big wake up call via text message – his “good-bye” message! Thankfully, he was not successful and we both have made huge strides in the positive direction since that day. I say both, because through that ordeal I learned I was an enabler. I actually subconsciously already knew it, but denial is easier than facing the cold hard truth. Following the hard lesson, I wondered how does one help someone going through depression, especially if they are having thoughts of suicide. The “what ifs” were paralyzing … what if I set boundaries, what if I don’t give him what he wants? The three days in the hospital (that’s all insurance would allow and that’s a whole other story) helped us both come to terms with the mistakes we both made in the past and how we are going to move forward, individually and as a team! I redefined the word “help”. To me, the term “help” sounds almost debilitating and when using the word “help” with someone that is struggling with mental heath issues, the last thing a social worker wants to do is make their client feel even more helpless. Instead, let’s show them the way, let’s guide them and assist them when needed. I let my sons know if they need something, they can come to me. I offer advice and assistance in how to find resources to enlighten them and empower them. That’s what I want to do as a social worker … guide and assist. P.S. My son is doing real good – he still has his triggers, but he has come a long way in learning how to cope with them.

    • Oh, wow, Dorothy. What a powerful story. I am struck not only by the tremendous journey you’ve walked to get to this point in your career, but also your reflections on the word ‘help’–what it means, what it can trigger, what it says about the relationship and our assessment of the other’s capabilities. I completely see your fear of not doing enough, and the terrible consequences that could carry, but I think your story is such a potent example of when and how doing less can be so much healthier. Thank you for sharing.

  39. I totally agree Melinda. I had many friends that would tell me to just let him fall that he will pick himself back up … you know, the belief that one must hit rock bottom before they can improve their situation. I also know there are many (I was one of these) that believe their child’s life is not to be gambled with, that instead it is better to be safe than sorry and to carry on being the silent enabler. I shared my story to show that safe isn’t always safe. As a social worker, I want to share the knowledge I gained by this experience with others – to show not only parents and families of children with mental illness, as well as teens and young adults personally, that between the two extremes I mentioned above there is a whole spectrum of ways to work through issues to make life better, ways that will give these kids the power to believe in themselves!

  40. Chandra Smalley

    That a very tough one! Although it feels different if it’s one of my kiddos or a client, it’s not! I try to view it as if I do things for them that they can do or learn to do for themselves then I am not only robbing them of very valuable lessons but also of their pride. I can not remember who explained it to me that way but it stuck! Now when I go to do something I know that they can do or are learning to do but having great difficulty, rather than thinking of it as helping them I ask myself how is my help going to hurt them or slow down the learning process which can range from learning a new skill, responsibility, organization, time management. All those skills that it takes to be successful in life. On the flip side, I often ask myself when they are struggling with a task if I am harming them by not helping. It’s my own little check and balance system. So I guess it comes down to their best interest and making sure I’m not doing it to help them but for my own selfish reasons.

  41. I appreciate you sharing that internal dialogue, Chandra. It sounds like a good way to check ourselves. We have to be careful, always, not to excuse our inaction by arguing that we don’t want to overdo…or to rob people of the chance to feel their own power, because we want to take shortcuts. Yes, knowing that that’s what we’re aiming for is easier than always striking that balance, but we have a better chance of arriving at the right spot, if we’re clear that that’s where we’re headed.

  42. Inaction is indeed action is something that I have also struggled to understand let alone practice. One of the great resources that helped me to become more comfortable with ‘sitting out’ of things at times is the Demand Control Schema developed by Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard. In this framework, actions by the service provider (in their case interpreters) are evaluated not solely in the overly-simplified terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ but instead by what new demands your actions (controls) as a practitioner produce. For example, by deciding to not assist your child in unbuckling the belt (control), the resulting demand may be that your child is not in the best mood; the new control would be how you would deal with his mini melt-down or grumpiness during the car ride. However, the insistence of having your child unbuckle himself may also lead ultimately to more independent skill sets.
    In short, in order to be prepared as a practitioner to successfully engage with community organizing, I would need to know what works. If it were only that simple! What has research shown to work in a community or specific situation, is there a need for additional research and varied insights on a particular issue (this is often the case), and what individual/ group should form the decision-making body? I feel that groups driven by the people most affected tend to experience the most success for a sustained period of time. This implies that I may shift my level of involvement depending on the needs of the community. At times I may be more directly involved and modeling the skillsets needed to enact sociopolitical change, while other times I may take the back-seat as members of the community begin to steer. As a new arrival to the field, I am still determining the ‘when’s’ and the ‘how’s’ of where and to what level I fit in.
    Our goal as social workers compel us to pursue social justice through self-determination, but the urgency and injustice of situations sometimes persuade us to compromise the consumer’s self-determination. Where is the balance?

  43. Good questions, Jacob, about the times when stepping back may be exactly what social justice–as well as effective intervention–demands. There is also, however, an important point that not acting doesn’t mean not taking a stand, since sitting on the sidelines, so to speak, is a way of marking out a position. That’s essential to remember when there is a controversial issue on which we decide to ‘do nothing’, since that is something, just maybe not what we really want to be remembered for. Does that make sense? I know it further complicates the question of when our best course of action is inaction, but I see it as the other side of that same coin, being deliberate and intentional and courageous in all our (in)actions.

  44. Sheria Howard

    Ironically, I’ve never thought of how parenting can tie or does tie to my job as a strengths based case worker. Because the program is MOSTLY client driven, the clients do most of the work required to try to resolve their dilemmas. I do admit that there are many times where I feel it’s best I be their voice in situations such as a instance where a slum lord wouldn’t fix water leaks and the client came to us for a $1200 bill and he’d rejected them. I can see how parenting-letting kids figure things out in their own time can relate to working with clients because really it’s similar-giving time for change to happen. l like it!:)

  45. I feel like it’s the reverse, a lot of times–my organizing background helps me in parenting, more than vice versa! But maybe that’s because I need more help as a parent! 🙂

  46. This golden rule has personally been the hardest for me to follow, as I find many things easier and less time consuming to do myself, rather than to explain how to do them to a client. When doing work at a refugee resettlement agency, it is very easy to want to drive clients to their appointments, rather than to teach them how to take the bus, because it is faster and cheaper, but it doesn’t end up being helpful to them in the long run, because these services won’t be available forever and they will not know how to take the bus at the end of the working relationship. It can do long-term damage to not think about the ramifications of these actions, even if they seem best in the short-term.
    Sometimes, because I think I care so much, I don’t want anyone else to do the work because I want to ensure it gets done correctly, but this only makes me selfish in what I do, without the focus being on the client and their needs. I seem to conflict with myself a lot about what I should and should not be doing for my clients. Community organizing is, like you said, about helping people to claim their power, not doing things ‘for’ but ‘with.’
    I used to spend a lot of time working for my clients behind the scenes, and what I quickly realized was that working harder than my clients produced little results, because I seemed to want to help them more than they wanted to help themselves at times. My willpower couldn’t help them unless they had some of their own willpower and strength to add to the equation. I was forgetting to empower them and was making them dependent upon me. The transformational relationship I was supposed to be building wasn’t happening, and people were not journeying toward the change which they desired. The golden rule you mention is what kept me on the right path to being an empowering social worker.

  47. That’s why I think this is so much like parenting, Kendra, where, too, it’s usually far easier and quicker just to do things ourselves than to teach our children to do them…even though the latter is what’s needed. I have observed, in myself, that this ‘overdoing’ is not only disempowering to clients, but can also lead to resentment and unhealthy attitudes about clients, as we assume that they are not as committed to change as we are, just because we haven’t set up the conditions where they could evidence such commitment. That can quickly cycle into victim blaming…which is where some parents end up, too!

  48. I notice myself doing this in my work at a PRTF. Someone will ask one of the girls a question and if they don’t say something right away I answer for them. I recognize this comes from a very selfish place inside me, because I want the girls to know that I’m paying attention to them and know these things about them. I literally speak for them when there is no reason they cannot do it themselves. I’ve rationalized it to myself that if I can show off that I know the answers, they will know how much I care and am invested in their treatment, but I know deep down that if I really were those things I would let them answer (or not) themselves.

  49. Good insights, Emily, to recognize in yourself. Because the truth is that they need and deserve to answer for themselves…and also that there’s no ‘quiz’ in relationship building, particularly with adolescents, or way in which we can prove our legitimacy as a force in these young people’s lives. I see that with my own kids; doing more for them doesn’t bring us closer, but experiencing themselves as autonomous entities who, increasingly, are choosing to inhabit the same space with me…that brings us closer.

  50. “Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself.” I really like this golden rule of organizing. For one, it falls in line with my understanding of empowerment, that requires clients recognizing their own power and utilizing their potential to their capacity, as we (social workers) serve as a guide. The other reason I like this golden rule of organizing is because I can understand it better after the guest speaker representing StandUp KC came in to discuss the fight for 15 movement and the powerful experiences that he and the people organizing are part of. To understand community organizing as a movement of the people that is facilitated by professionals feels more powerful and arouses stronger feelings of hope than does the thought of being the “expert” who is going to go out into the world and make the change happen with all my pedantry and bravado. Nevertheless, I remain somewhat intimated by the thought of community organizing because I just don’t know how it could ever actually happen in the world and/or organization that I function in as a social worker that is so service-driven and/or at times seems to be so insignificant or nothing to organize for. I wonder how many of us social workers think organizing is a dated practice or one that is only effective for those “heavy” issues or simply not feasible for us? I’d like to change that. I am nothing if not fueled by my passions and yet, I’ve not actually put my passions to work and as a social worker, this feels so shameful. Thank you for this post, Melinda. It was a great read.

    • Thank you, Jessica, and thank you for the reflections about StandUpKC. Community organizing has been simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding part of my work life. It is hard to help people claim their own power, and channel it for collective action, but I don’t know that history has ever shown us a better way to create change. I am confident about your ability to be part of these movements and look forward to laboring alongside you for causes of justice.


  51. Well, I think I’ll answer your last question first. “What do you feel that you need to know, or know how to do, before embarking on community organizing activities as a professional social worker?” I think patience and knowledge of one’s self is very important. As a mother myself, I get it. I’m late to everything, it’s easier to “just do it” myself, and “Well, it get’s done right the first time.” The problem is, my children don’t gain the needed knowledge from me doing it, it doesn’t allow them the true satisfaction of utilizing that inner empowerment, and I do not want to promote reliance on something that will not always be there and honestly they can do themselves. This mostly applies to those we work with also. The problem is not with my kids or those I work with, it is with me knowing myself. I need to remember, and know, I am impatient, like things done just so, and it is not about me. By knowing this about myself, I become a better community organizer.

    Having communities that are organized aid social work practice by utilizing the strengths already there, helps them utilize their own empowerment, and strengthens society. Social work is not about doing all the work for someone/groups/communities. It is about working with them to find the resources needed to better society as a whole, by acknowledging we all have strengths and valuable resources to offer. Everyone just needs a chance to give those contributions in a safe and just society.

  52. Olivia Johnson

    Doing things for others that they can do for themselves is really hard for me (as I am it is for most of us). I tend to do everything in a hurry, so it is difficult for me to slow down and let the client do it for themselves. While I have never performed the role of community organizer, I am sure that I would be frequently tempted to just get things done, even when the client can do it for themselves.

    While we all know this concept in essence I think this is an important reminder. We can truly hinder the clients wellbeing if we are constantly doing for them. As stated, it can be the same as an over helpful parent. If we, as social workers are trying to help the clients we must remember that it doesn’t mean doing everything for them, they must help themselves as well.

  53. I think this kind of ‘overdoing’ is corrosive to us as workers, too, not just disempowering to clients. We can too easily fall into a trap of seeing those with whom we work as incapable, or even resenting their needs, when what really needs adjusting is our own terms of engagement. Fortunately, awareness is the first step to combating this tendency!

  54. The reason why most of us became social workers was to help others. I often find myself trying to be a parent to my younger brothers because I have been in their shoes and want to guide them to making the right decisions. However, learning from our mistakes can provide us the knowledge to pass on in the future.
    Vulnerable populations are often difficult to work with because as social workers we often have to do things for the client. In certain situations, I believe it is okay for social workers to do things for the client, but also push the client to do it themselves if possible.
    At what point should we let ourselves to do the work for the clients?

    • I think you’re asking the right questions, Kaitlyn! I mean, if we automatically assume that we ‘shouldn’t do for’ our clients, are we excusing our own inaction? Possibly. But if we are too quick to jump in, are we conveying helplessness and disempowerment? Quite probably. If we’re constantly torn, grappling with trying to be truly helpful and listening–hard–to what our clients really need from us (even before they can articulate it), do we stand at least a chance of getting it right? That’s what we have to hope! Thank you for posting.

  55. Wow, this is a popular post! As I was reading this blog I got to thinking of what one of my ex-supervisors shared with me last month. She stated that she loved her previous job a lot and spent so much time working and putting in to the children that she served that her own family was at time neglected. She shared that she missed out on a number of things that happened in her children’s lives. I believe that it works the same way when we do not allow the parents, clients or the children that we allow them to miss out on opportunities that has the potential to help them grow. If we do all of the work for them how are we empowering the population that we are serving?

    We are servants, granted, but, we are individuals, as well. Just like we are parents and a large number of social workers are women we have a nurturing instinct that wants to “fix things” and sometimes we are impatient. Yet, a large number of times we don’t want those that we care about to fail. So, we thing that we have to do it for them. Yet, we have to step back, let them try, let them fall if need be to help them to grow.

    And, if we do not step back and let them try we are short-changing them and ourselves because most likely we have already taught them. We have taught them the fundamentals to try own their own. If we don’t allow them to try and see if they can succeed then we are short changing them and ourselves. A fine one that I am sharing my insights, huh? I have a hard time sometimes and want to “fix” someone else’s problems, especially, someone whom I love! I need to practice what I preach and most times I do. No matter how hard it is! It is how we all grow!

  56. This is great, Chris! I so appreciate your openness and honesty here, and your acknowledgement of how hard it can be to get this ‘right’. Thank you for voicing these universal tensions…and for admitting that sometimes we all fall short (or overreach!).

  57. Jessica Facklam

    First of all, I would like to say that it makes me feel better to know that at one point you were scared too (being chosen to model the 1:1). So many of the things I have learned on a micro level are applicable to organizing. Knowing this actually makes community organizing seem less scary to me! This “golden rule” makes so much sense! If we are going to empower anyone to make changes for themselves, we can’t do everything for them. As a “helper”, it is difficult to let people flounder and find their own way, but it is necessary to our helping, and their learning, process. Setting boundaries is difficult when we want to be helpful, but realistically, we are not helping at all when we do everything for people instead of with them. I think about this in the context of training people in my department to do my job. When it gets overwhelmingly busy and they are moving slower than I would (because they don’t have their system down yet), it takes a large amount of self control not to jump in to bail them out. It is difficult to know where that line is that indicates that it is time to help so that trainees don’t feel like they are drowning. Yes! Doing everything myself seems so much easier and more efficient at times, but change is a lot easier when there is a team to do the work. Besides, it is nice to take time off sometimes, knowing things are being done right! Thank you for sharing this insight!

  58. Erica Rose-Hunter

    Fortunately for me, my first supervisor in case management taught me this very thing. He too is a social worker; except he prefers the administrative level because ironically he doesn’t like people. He taught me, and my whole team, that we are not paid to do things for our client. Instead, we are paid to help our clients get to the highest level of functioning they can, and then instill supports in their lives that can help them with the rest. My struggle is, as with my children, I am a nurturer. I have found myself in positions where I wanted something for someone more than they wanted it for themselves. I have had clients who had their children taken from them and I knew they had the potential to get them back, but they just could not or would not use the helps in place to stop using drugs. Even clients who are unstable in their living situation, and I knew they could live on their own, but they just would not go the extra mile. I am just now learning to step back and allow clients to sink or swim. Ultimately, people have the right to chose how and when they succeed. I do not have the right to chose it for them, or worry myself to death over their choices.

  59. I’m struck, Erica, by how many of those who have commented here have reflected, as I did, on the parallels between social work practice and parenting. It’s not just in my head! I know it’s hard immediately, sometimes, but I really see empowerment work as nurturing; you’re helping people to live into their own power and avoiding getting in the way of their own liberation…what could be more compatible with caring, really, than that?

  60. Today, it seems that we are trying to get everything done faster, sooner, with less stress and less work. This also includes our work with clients in the social work field. It seems like such a simple task to make a phone call for a client, or do things they are capable of doing, only faster. Working at an elementary school, I see this daily. Teachers, social workers, lunch staff…everyone in their desperate attempts to help the students do things faster or more efficiently basically give the students a sense of non-validation. Whether it be a teacher grabbing a student’s lunch tray off the counter for them, writing words out for students who are learning and still writing slowly and sloppily, or administration tucking in a student’s shirt, this is not validating these young children in their abilities to do basic skills themselves, or force them to rely on other, older, “more capable” people.

    This could also go along with parenting. We believe we are helping the kids by spreading their peanut butter onto the bread for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or quickly tying shoes on the way out the door, but in the long run is this helpful and beneficial, or is it creating a non-validating culture that relies on others to be effective? Of course, this is an extreme case. Surely, tying a child’s shoe as you run late out the door, or buckling a seatbelt will not automatically create a culture of incapable, finding-the-easy-way-out, shortcut-taking, teenagers. But how do these aspects add up over years and years?

  61. Great questions and observations, Gina, and I really appreciate the tangible examples you included. Of course the idea isn’t to overly pathologize the times we step in and do for someone…but to prompt a greater level of intentionality and reflection each time we do, so that we see the implications of what might otherwise be invisible. I wonder what response you’d get, in your school, if you pointed out the ways in which these actions are undermining the goals the school has to cultivate resilience and independence among the students?

  62. Brittany Sheets

    I believe that many social workers struggle with “over helping”. I know that I personally do. We are a helping profession, after all. The difficulty is finding a balance between helping our clients and hindering their growth. I believe that your relation to parenting brings this idea to light. I am not a parent, but after working as a full-time nanny for the last 8 years I have learned a lesson or two about not encouraging independence. How are our children supposed to grow into independent adults if we do not allow them to achieve things on their own? This takes a lot of patience, however, as it does when working with clients. Yes, it may be easier to do things yourself in order to speed the process along or protect the dignity of your clients. However, how are your clients to learn and grow if they are not ever given the opportunity to do so? I believe that taking the back seat (no pun intended) when working with clients can be especially difficult when those clients do not seem to be motivated to make a change. It is important for us to remember that it is not our job to change them, but to instead encourage change and empowerment. There is nothing empowering about doing everything for your clients.

    • Absolutely, Brittany. The challenge is that there’s also nothing empowering about not providing our clients with the tools they need. And the line that separates overdoing from not doing enough isn’t always easy to see! What lets you know when you’re overcompensating in a way that’s unhelpful to those with whom you work? How do you guard against that?

  63. Kristina Knight

    I am completely guilty of “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” mentality. Often times, getting something done “right” also implies getting something done quickly and with less stress. This is true of my work as an Autism Paraeducator. I am nearing the end of this job soon, and looking back, I realize exactly how many things I did for the kids that they were capable of doing themselves. I have done so many things for them, from turning in assignments to filling out the homework planner, that I realize that my kids don’t have a true sense of being independent because I wanted “something done right.” My own OCD tendencies and stress about looking like I am so amazing at my job has left my clients without the necessary skills they need for their future.

    I completely agree that there is ambiguity in when do we let the client do something on his/her own as a learning experience. You can never know what you’re capable of until you try something; this knowledge should be applied the same way for clients. Clients should be given the self-determination to determine whether they are capable of something or not, and we as social workers should be there to step in when the client feels they are unable to do something. This doesn’t mean do it for them though. It’s a tough line to draw and something that you definitely have me considering now!

  64. Oh, yes, Kristina–how often do we ‘overdo’ for others because we want it to reflect well on us! In parenting and in work! Great reminder, that it’s not the best way and it’s not about us.

  65. Natalie Reeves

    that was good to hear both for my children and in regards to organizing! Ultimately, there is nothing better that you can do for someone then empower them to do for themselves! It’s knowing where the line is that is tricky!

  66. It is; for me, it’s different for different children, even, as I think differently about what I can rightly expect from them, depending on their particular needs. That means that not only does our commitment to empowerment need to be finely-tuned, but so do our assessment skills, so that we know where abandonment ends and empowerment begins!

  67. Julie Thompson

    I barely made it through the third paragraph before thinking, hey, that sounds just like what I’m doing with the kids lately! I nanny the most curious two year old twins, and I trust that you know better than I how much patience, consistency, and encouragement teaching toddlers requires. In the context of social work practice, however, I do believe that we are able to use language to more effectively explain our reasoning and intention behind allowing clients to take on tasks that we believe they are capable of. The empowerment approach aligns well with the golden rule by supporting and guiding our clients to attempt tasks and challenges that seem intimidating or daunting at first. I think the important thing to remember when we decide it’s safe to step back and let them try is that they are learning, even if they fail in the process. The issue that has primarily caused me to act with hesitance in my past work with clients was the crushing weight of professional accountability for client outcomes, as well as my desire to protect them from failure and to see them succeed. Ultimately, our role in the empowerment process is to share power and help, rather than control, our clients as we work together to achieve their goals. I have found that allowing clients sufficient room to grow is critical to developing a client’s sense of self-efficacy, which can be strengthened during our work together to lay a solid foundation for challenges in their future. The key here, in my experience, is to communicate and show clients that while we believe in their ability to succeed and expect them to give it their best shot, we will be there to offer them support and guidance if needed along the way. We don’t have to completely abandon our clients to affect growth; sometimes simply seeing you sitting at the back of their court hearing, knowing you’re in their corner and that really do believe they can speak effectively on their own behalf, is enough to give them the confidence to prove to themselves that they can.

  68. Yes, Julie, and understanding what ‘safe’ really means, and what that needs to look like. A fellow mom once told me, when I started to remind my son to be careful walking on this (quite low) wall, “he’s not going to die from this.” And she was right; it was a pretty low-risk endeavor, and I was better off just letting him try, than hovering. That doesn’t mean neglect, or truly, willfully, watching people we care about hurt, but it does mean keeping perspective and, in this case, knowing that he would learn more from falling than my shouted reminders, anyway.

  69. Brittaney Miller

    I enjoyed the comparison, and I think it’s a good one. I used to do parenting services with clients in my undergrad and there were several instances they would ask us to do things that they were more than capable to do. I think that the motivation was a huge factor in why they did or didn’t want to do it on their own. The motivation needs to be instilled in them and that will encourage them to do it and not wait on us. If someone wants something done bad enough they will take it upon themselves to accomplish it because sooner is better than waiting on us to do it. Clients forget this because they become comfortable relying on us doing what needs to be done because we want a successful case. But what is that teaching them? It can cause re-entry with children if we terminate and they don’t know how to do what needs to be done on their own. Motivation is the key.

    • How do you address this, though, when clients are impaired by their depression or stresses or other life strains, in ways that can evidence like lack of ‘motivation’? Social work’s emphasis on clients doesn’t allow us to just expect them to pull up by their bootstraps, but yet, if we overdo, then we don’t help anyone. How do we strike the right balance?


  70. I had to learn this lesson (of not doing something for someone that they can do themselves) when I was in my undergraduate program. I was in one of my Practice classes and we were partnered up in order to practice process recordings. We had to role play as the social worker, while our client (our partner) told us something they were trying to work through in their life. A video camera recorded our entire “session”, and then we had to pick 10- 15 minutes of the session that we felt was meaningful in some way, and write down verbatim what all was said. Watching the video of this exercise I noticed that I was giving my “client” an “out” the majority of the session. In other words, I would ask her a question, and then instead of letting her expound upon her answer, I would kind of give her options of answers I expected her to say. It became really clear as I was watching the video, that I needed to ask my question, or make my point, and then shut my mouth and allow my client to speak up for their self! I think that learning this lesson has helped me to think before I speak up, especially when it is conversation with a client.

    I think that is a lesson I continue to learn, and I think the reason you stated is spot on- as social workers we want to help people! I can only imagine how much more time I would have if I never did anything for anyone that they can do for their self. I know that for me personally, I have a tendency to be a bit of a control freak on how I like things done. Sometimes, I know that I do things just because I want them done my way. I guess I have to be careful to make sure I am keeping that in check when I am working with clients or working with my peers. It’s probably okay for my home life though; that is the very reason that I am the only one who folds the towels in the home!

  71. How great that you were able to observe and recognize this so early in your career! And I would challenge you on whether it’s really okay to ‘overdo’ at home–I’m a towel-picker-upper, too, but I have been consistently (and pleasantly) surprised at what my children can do when I expect them to. My youngest son can start the laundry standing on a stool, and he’s so proud of himself for “using a machine!” What do we need to check, in ourselves, in order to get out of the way?

  72. Much like prior posts, I am guilty of “just doing it.” When I discovered my step-son was purposefully leaving cleaning tasks incomplete so that I would finish, a light bulb went off. I’m not here “to do” or “finish” something, I’m here to show and provide feedback so he can learn to do it himself. The same with my 4-year-old daughter. I refuse to pick up her toys and games because if she is able to get them out, she can put them away. It may not be the way I want it to be put away, but she is proud of her accomplishment: cleaning up.
    I also learned a hard lesson in the client world with “just doing it.” I got in trouble at court for making an appointment for a client. I knew the client wouldn’t make the appointment, but would attend if the appointment was made. I was informed by a judge that the client needed to initiate processes and complete them alone. With all future work, I would ensure clients had correct contact information and allow them to proceed with how they saw fit. It was hard, but allowed autonomy.

    • Wow, Rebecca–that is a hard way to learn that lesson, but such a powerful one. What does this look like, do you think, in community practice? Is it different, when the ‘client’ is an entire group–particularly a vulnerable one–rather than an individual? Or not? What do you tell yourself, when it’s so tempting to just ‘do’? (looking for strategies, here!)

  73. I know I will struggle with this. My background is operations management, my life was getting us from point A to point B, often doing the worst tasks myself so I knew they’d be done. I still do this is my life now. I help design a plan and then I do the hardest part myself. I make the phone calls, the appointments, pick up the chairs. I know I will need to turn these tasks over, let others get their hands dirty (something I ironically have no problem doing as a parent). I suppose part of what I will struggle with is what do I do then? If I’m having the client do all the work they can- not just what they should and not just sometimes but always all the work- what’s left for me? It will be a shift in focus from the tangible operations of my past to the intangible empowerment and educating of my future.

  74. You know, the fact that you have honed these skills–and developed this temperament–as a parent, should set you up for doing this in professional practice, too. I wonder if there are ways that your propensity to take on the ‘toughest’ tasks can be transformed, so that you’re taking on some of the things that people don’t want to do, but leaving some of the best opportunities for growth for the leaders you want to cultivate? I think that your insights into yourself and willingness to push yourself will help you continue to grow here…and, honestly, I still battle it myself every single day, but at least I feel that I’m fighting the good fight!

  75. Brittany Brooks

    As a parent this is a daily struggle. Honestly, sometimes it is just easier and quicker to do things myself. I often have to take a step back and remind myself that while buckling the children up myself may save me 5 minutes in the present, what will it do to the kids in the long run if they never learn to do it themselves. I feel this will be one of the harder things I will have to deal with in my career. I want to jump in and save the day, I want to help ensure my clients feel as little discomfort and fear as possible, but once again, what will this do for them in the long run? I may be able to “fix” the issue they have at hand now, but in the real world, it’s only a matter of time before something else comes up that will need to be “fixed”. And what if I cannot be there that time? They now not only have a problem, but they do not have the skills to change the problem. I have to continually remind myself that social workers do not solve others problems, but rather they help others solve their own problems. I will have to make a conscious effort to keep this in mind as I continue my career.

    • I think it’s always a process, to keep this in mind, and to resist the temptation to be ‘doing’…and I really think that’s what it primarily is. I mean, sometimes, yes, I think we feel that we could resolve a situation more quickly than someone else (including a client), and that’s what compels our action, but other times, I think we just can’t stand the thought of seeing people suffering without doing, as much as we possibly can. Thanks for sharing your journey with this.

  76. I definitely struggle with this balance. I think that I tend to try and ‘fix’ things much too quick. This has been on my mind lately at work because of chances to hand off work to others. I think the part that really limits me, is my expectation for the result that will come of the action. Since I am used to the results I tend to get when I do the work, I tend to lean on those because it is a ‘safer’ route, therefore I enable myself to have the power in the action. It is very difficult for me to take alternate routes to get to the result, because that might mean (and probably will mean) the result will be different than my expectation. Understanding this and being okay with it are two different things, and unfortunately, I struggle with the latter. This is a part of my self-interest that gets in the way, which is that I am giving up some of the power I have bestowed upon myself of doing the action. This is still quite difficult for me, but it is something that is apparent in my work styles, and I need to be more intentional about. Moving forward, it is important for me to raise my awareness of power struggles both externally and internally. This is definitely one of my self interests at work that can be a bit painful to acknowledge.

  77. Good insight, Danny–YES, we absolutely have interests in holding onto the work, because of not only the power but also, often, the satisfaction that comes with doing so. But we need to acknowledge that we can’t necessarily predict the outcomes from our own exertions, either, particularly as we embark on ever-more challenging work, and that others may bring skills and competencies that actually increase our chances of success. Nonetheless, it’s not an easy process, but your self-awareness greatly increases your ability to move in that direction. I admire your propensity for transparent self-reflection.

  78. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I really do. This means so much to me because this is who I am. The “I will do it for you because it’s faster.” I mantra this all the time to myself so that I don’t give in to the compulsion to do something for someone that they can do for themselves. You can say, I’m not a great teacher. This is such an important life lesson for everyone, including me.
    I really wonder what my life would be like if I didn’t make my parents dependent on me (as the only English speaker in the house), and if I didn’t make my brother dependent on me (because he is younger), he can do his own FAFSA! But I mean, I’m imagining how often I could potentially be there to hold the client’s hand and how horrible it would be for them to become dependent on me because I am the one that allowed it to happen. Luckily, that has not happened to me yet but I really must try hard to repeat this to myself so I don’t accidentally say “yeah I can do it for you” before thinking about whether or not they are capable of doing it themselves.

  79. It’s a great point, Janny, about how this can become a mutually-reinforcing cycle, as those who depend on us cultivate this sense of dependency…as our actions simultaneously constrain the development of their competency. One of the things it’s important to be aware of too, I think, is this question of ‘capability’–is the question really whether or not others are ‘capable’ of doing something now, or whether their capability can be fostered…and whether that’s valuable in its own right? Also, are they capable of doing something in a way that works for them, even if not for us? And, if so, shouldn’t that be enough? Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  80. I mean honestly, as social workers, what don’t do for our clients that often times crosses that line of allowing them the space to do things themselves?? That is essentially our goal in our profession; to serve our clients. I know as newly graduating social workers, we have this zeal about getting out in the field and really doing this thing for our clients. But also believe as we get more into it, we will learn our boundaries better, and our own unique way of helping our clients. I think we can all learn from this, however, that there is a line between encouraging people an abandoning them; as well as, knowing our limits in pushing our clients that could possibly go again their own self-interest/self-determination. I think that line is subjective, and should be fostered and guided by our ethics and supervision from others, so that we are aware of ourselves and how that could potentially hinder our clients while trying to help them.

    • I just wanted to weigh in here, Aarion, because I think your point that this may be a particular temptation for newer social workers is a critical one. I mean, experienced professionals are CERTAINLY not immune from this, but I think it’s a crucial reminder that doing more for clients isn’t necessarily the hallmark of a ‘better’ worker. I also appreciate your point that this isn’t likely a line we can navigate on our own but, instead, one that will require authentic exchanges and honest use of consultation. I always feel that I think more clearly about things after seeing how you’re thinking about them. Thank you for sharing.

  81. Darcy Letourneau

    What a great connection you were able to make! While reading this post I kept thinking back to experience as a direct service provider for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. When working with people with dementia it is very important for the individual with disease to do the things that they are still capable of so they do not lose their skills or strength. As simple as this sounds I often see caregivers getting frustrated with the individual because they are taking a lot of time to complete a task or are completing the task in a very different way than they once use to. So although it is so important to let these individuals continue to use their skills and build strength it takes much more patience and awareness for the caregiver to allow this to happen. This seems similar to your connection you made with your son and the car seat. I will continue to remember both of these examples as I move forward in my social work career.

  82. Yes, absolutely, Darcy–there is really no occasion I can think of that isn’t well-served by making sure we’re not doing too much for people. Of course, the tricky part is still doing enough which, in parenting and in social work, can be hard too…but I think we overdo more often than not. Your example is more evidence of why that’s so dangerous!

  83. Like others have said, I naturally want to do things for people, both because I am impatient and also because that way I can ensure something will get done. Personally though, I find it extremely disempowering when people do things for me; it makes me feel like they think I am not capable of doing things myself and I hate that feeling. I completely agree with this golden rule.

    However, when I was working in the immigration clinic, clients often received completely different treatment when they were alone and when they were with a social worker, especially in dealing with Immigration officials. While I think it’s awful that people are treated differently based on their presumed level of power, I think it’s often a reality of this world. I wonder how this factors in with the golden rule?

    • Great question, Lucy. I’ve experienced this too. It happens now with my kids, though–I know that I can get what my kids need from their teachers, for example, usually by sheer force of argumentation, but I want them to advocate for themselves…even when they don’t as reliably get the desired results. For me, in that context, I try different approaches, none of which are ideal, but all of which might have some relevance for this situation. Sometimes I have my kids there with me so that they can see the strategies I use, the evidence I present, and how I approach the negotiations. Sometimes I roleplay with them to get them ready, to increase their chance of presenting their ‘best selves’. Sometimes I reflect to the institution my ‘surprise’ (usually framed that way) that a situation was handled differently when it was my child asking for the accommodation than when it was me. I want them to reckon with that unfairness. Sometimes I explain to my kids that I am like a tool that they are wielding–that I won’t take a position or argue for an aim that they don’t support, but that they can use me like a resource. What do you think? Does any of this at all resonate with your concerns?

  84. Oh wow as a parent and social worker myself this absolutely resonates with me!!! The struggle to find an appropriate balance between encouraging independence and recognizing individual limitations is an ongoing challenge. Do I make a phone call for a client sitting next to me who battles severe social anxiety or do I hand the phone over, understanding that the task will be difficult but ultimately within my client’s ability to manage? Do continue to lay out my kindergartener’s clothes the night before school because I know it will be easier for all of us on busy mornings or do I show him how to choose an outfit so that he can have the confidence to dress himself even if it means our mornings will likely be a little more chaotic as we rush to get to everyone to school on time? This is a constant struggle I have as someone who wants to be as helpful to as many people as I can. I would say that earlier in my career as a social worker I was more apt to pick up that phone and make the call myself. Now however I have more confidence in my ability to recognize what clients can and can’t do not what they would prefer that I do. I have turned those phone calls into opportunities to challenge preconceptions and fears, to work on self-advocacy and realization of existing strengths and skills. I might not always agree with my kindergartener’s stylistic decisions but the look of pride on his face when he gets himself dressed before school lets me know both he and I have made the right choice.

  85. I love this response, Ben! I was hoping you would comment on this post, because I can see how you grapple with these trade-offs in both domains, too. I have to ask: what about when it goes wrong? I mean, do you have clients who shut down and can’t make the call? Are you all ever tardy? That’s the part that I struggle with the most: I’m disciplined, at this point in my parenting and social work career, to step back and let others step up. What is hard for me is not swooping in to rescue when things are going badly. But that is SO important, too. I’d love to hear how you handle that.

  86. Yvette Martinez

    As much as I LOVED my foundation year practicum… I did not get the full experience of termination, advocacy, rapport building ( I did to a sense but not the kind that is taught in our sw practice course), or community out reach. This blog had me stepping out and looking at myself as student, friend, family member and social worker.… I am guilty of wanting to do everything for everyone, not because I HAVE to, but I feel like if I do not do it, it will never get done or they will not understand how to get the best results. As I read the blog, I made sure to write down the golden rule…Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself. Not should do for herself, but can do for herself. Not ‘rarely’ or ‘seldom’, but ‘never’… I have put myself in a position where I cannot identify where to draw the line… As a family member, I am consistently bailing my family out of debt or I handle the finances for my parent; I do this because I feel like they wont budget and have enough to pay all bills or they will get late fees so I do it because its easy to do. As a friend, I am consistently asked for advice or asked for assistance that is school related, I always feel like if I do not help then they might miss out on opportunities or they will fail. I do know that I do too much for others so I enjoyed this blog; it empowered me to find those boundaries and finding the right approach to allow others do things that they CAN do for themselves. Within’ this year I have learned a lot about self care and I think this adds to my list of self care goals, so that I am not handing too much on my own as a social worker. Thank you for this, it opened my mind up…it gave me a new lens on how to look at situations when I am doing too much.

  87. Yes, Yvette, not doing too much for others is absolutely a part of self-care; there won’t be time or energy to take care of your needs if you are always tending to the needs of others. Critically, though, it’s also part of ‘other-care’; we’re not really caring for others if we’re not helping them live into their best selves. I appreciate your emphasis on the word ‘can’. This isn’t about making a judgment call about what others should be doing and then imposing that judgment on them. It’s about believing in people and communicating that sense of confidence, so that they take steps they might not have otherwise. Thank you for sharing your story.

  88. This is such a great blog post for social workers. I often struggle with the idea of self-determination in practice. With my clients, I can usually see the path they need to take to better themselves. If they could just get that job, finish school, or quit smoking, their lives could be filled with much less conflict. However, this idea of fixing people and telling them what to do is completely against my social work values. Instead, I try to lead people in the direction they want to go. Even then, I find myself staying after hours to make phone calls for clients, put together self-care information sheets, and fill out applications that the client could obviously be doing. This post really made me think about the line I cross when doing things for people. I’m more driven now to focus on my clients strengths and capabilities and give them numbers to call, have them recall their own activities for self-care, and fill out their own applications. I think just as letting your son learn to put on his own seat belt, our clients have an inherent want to learn and grow through as much as they are capable of doing. After all, I believe learning takes place in this struggle between what we can do and what we can do with a little bit of help.

  89. Thanks for sharing these reflections, Courtney. The irony of you sacrificing your own personal time to fill out others’ self-care sheets was poignant, too; when we overdo for others, truly (not just doing what we really should be doing, but which perhaps our organizations don’t give us enough resources to do easily or well), that usually comes at a cost to ourselves, and, over time, that can be destructive. Just like today, when I spend too much time cleaning up the elaborate board games of my much-older-now son, and then quietly resent my daughter asking for help with reading…because I’m depleted from doing something he should have done himself. Obviously, it’s an ongoing process, this idea of doing what we should and not what we must not, in parenting and in social work!

  90. Katie J Stoddard

    This was a very interesting concept you have presented here and one that I have honestly not thought about. I have obviously heard about and support the idea of self-determination, but this “hands off, but ready” approach has shed a new light on it. I think of my time in college in the weight room where we would have to “spot” our fellow teammates while they bench pressed or squatted. The key to this “spotting” was to not touch them or the weight bar during the lift, but to shadow their movements and equipment to make sure they don’t drop the bar on themselves or collapse, which could result in serious injury. We were to be that “safety net” for them. This scenario has painted a clear picture on what our relationship with our clients should look like. I would have never thought of it this way without reading this post, so thank you! This does make me wonder how we will know what our clients are capable of on their own and when we will know that its time to step in and assist them more proactively. Through the building of the therapeutic relationship, I hope this communication, transparency, confidence, vulnerability, and trust is developed.

  91. Good analogy to spotting, Katie! As far as when we know when enough is enough, I would say that we can’t always no for sure–in parenting, either. But if we’re engaged in relationship and ready to help if needed, we send people the message that we trust them to try, and that they can handle setbacks, just like we do. Returning to your example, of course you don’t want the weight to fall on someone, but if they try to lift it and end up needing the spotter’s help to set it down safely, they’ve now learned where their limits are, and where they want to try to push next time.

  92. Brandy Williams

    It is amazing how timely some of these posts become when we least expect it! I was just talking to a co-worker about this concept of hands off social work, about leaving things for others to discover and learn on their own, but being a voice of support and guidance when we are asked to be that voice or guidance or support. For me community organizing is all about what the community you are serving is looking to change, identifying their strengths, helping to build their strengths and being there to advocate and support their needs and wants. When you use the analogy of motherhood on top of that, then it makes even further sense! One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is become a parent. It is something that is a struggle every day, but our job as parents is to also guide and support and encourage our children to gain their independence, to find their strengths and for them to fail in order to grow. This goes for all of us, social workers, clients, communities, etc., failing is part of growth, learning is part of growth and knowing that we have advocates and supports and guidance makes those failures worth it.

  93. ‘Hands off’ social work should be a new term, Brandy! How often do we console ourselves that our ‘busy-ness’ means that we’re REALLY helping, when the hardest work can come with stepping back and pushing others forward…in parenting and in organizing and in life, I have come to see this as some of the greatest parts of the struggle, coming to peace with the limits of our own efficacy, and letting go of ‘control’.

  94. Self-determination is the one thing of social work that I probably have the most trouble with. A client is going to do whatever they want to do, regardless of what we say. We can provide them with all the proper information and networks, but I can’t call for them or set appointments for them, which I wish I could do so I know they are actually doing it. BUT I CANT. Controlling their lives isnt my job, and learning that has been hard, but helpful in the long run. I am not their parent, and I can’t hover over them or else they will get annoyed and possibly feel like I am looking at them with a “less-than” perspective, which is never true. But I know I can come off that way at certain points, either with facial expressions or the way I saw certain things. The most I can do now, is give them the opportunity to do what they want to do with me present, in case they have questions or I have a better time understanding what is being said to them. Hard to learn, easy to do once you know what the boundaries are!

  95. It’s an important point, Lauren, that truly empowering those with whom we’re working–in a parenting context or, certainly, in social work–means more than just ‘not doing’ for others. The messages we often send, even unconsciously, as you point out, can convey that we have something less than confidence in others’ capacity to take on the challenge they face, and that, in turn, can ensure that they will hesitate to assume those responsibilities. Now that you’re aware of how this can manifest in your practice, what can you do to redouble your commitment to completely demonstrating faith in your clients–just as I have to make sure that I’m not signaling to my kids that I’m just waiting until they inevitably ask for help?

    • What I have been doing lately is trying to follow up with them and ask them how the process is going, asking them if I can get them any different info that they don’t already have, maybe any questions, but then again it’s the matter of sounding pushy.

  96. Jennifer Hannon

    This post really resonated with me because I have the tendency to do things for other people when they can do it themselves. I have a tendency to do this in both my personal and professional life because I had to learn to be independent at a young age; I had to take care of things that no one else would do for me. I now tend to overcompensate by helping people (sometimes too much) because I want to give people what I never had. I want to help carry people across the finish line, and I often realize in hindsight that I have done them a great disservice. People often grow comfortable when things are done for them, sometimes taking advantage of the person helping them. They do not see the need to put forth any type of effort if they know they can rely on others to do the hard work.

    At my practicum, I have become more cognizant of my tendency to take on an overly nurturing, motherly role and the effect that it can have on my clients. When I first got to my practicum in August, I would often walk through every part of the meal with some of my clients, including walking them through skills that they already knew how to use. Through this year, I have learned that I can assist my clients effectively without walking them through every step of a process that they already know like the back of their hand. I now let them sit in the discomfort of the meal and let them process with me during and after the meal. If the client is visibly or audibly upset, I will ask them what skills they can use in that moment to help get them through the physical and mental anguish that they are experiencing.

    I genuinely agree that it is not easy to sit on our hands and do less, because I tend to overanalyze and think about what else I could be doing to make a difference. I have certainly grown when it comes to sitting in the discomfort that I will not always be able to control everything, but I still have a long ways to go!

  97. That is a really profound insight, Jennifer–that our tendency to ‘do more’ for people often comes, not just (or even primarily) from what we want for them, but also from what we want to avoid for ourselves–disappointment, ‘failure’, or, as you state it, discomfort. That means that ensuring that we’re not inappropriately or unhelpfully overdoing means first being honest with ourselves about our motivations for doing so, so that we can do the work we need to for/on ourselves…and, hopefully, less on/for others. Thank you for sharing.

  98. Marissa Martin

    The first thing that I thought of while reading this article was the ethical principle of the self-determination of the client found in the NASW’s Code of Ethics. Although I’ve been used to applying this principle in micro contexts, your blog post shows exactly how this principle must also be implemented in macro contexts.

    This is one of my favorite ethical principles in the Code of Ethics because it sets a clear boundary for when social workers should ease back on their willingness to help others. As you mentioned in your post, social workers have the tendency to do things for clients–when clients can easily do it themselves–all of the time. We are an especially empathetic group of people, so checking our own professional work boundaries in these contexts is vital. There are dozens of ways that we can justify these actions, but social workers have to ask themselves whether or not it’s truly promoting that principle of the self-determination of the client. Performing these types of tasks for our clients, whether they be individuals or communities, only hinders them in the long run because they fail to learn how to be self-sufficient.

  99. Thanks, Marissa. One thing that I think is an important insight for some social workers is that ‘doing less’ isn’t about being less kind or helpful; it’s about ensuring that we’re not doing more than we really should be–which would often be less than totally kind (because it undermines people’s own power) and certainly less than helpful (because people don’t have an opportunity to experience their own competency). If we always think of overreaching as the less selfish action, instead of realizing the ways in which our own motives can compel doing too much, sometimes, then I think we’ll always be ‘at war’ with ourselves, wanting to do more than maybe we should. I particularly appreciate your point about making sure we’re not justifying ourselves, and about self-reflection, in this process. Thank you!

  100. Refraining from doing things for others that they can do for themselves is something that I have not really thought a great deal about, but when I think about it I realize that it is something I really struggle with. It is very difficult and uncomfortable to watch others struggle with something that you know you could assist them with. I have found this particularly true with children. It is especially difficult for me to watch children struggle, particularly since there are a larger number of things that children cannot do for themselves. However, especially for children, doing things for them that they can do for themselves will actually be a great disservice for them later in their lives. Often, people are actually capable of so much more than they think they are. I work at Cottonwood, and independence and honoring the self-determination of consumers are strongly emphasized values. In fact, the mission statement is “helping people with disabilities shape their own future”, and one of the key values is “recognizing and supporting each individual’s right to make choices, take reasonable risks, and experience the natural process of learning”. It’s tempting at times to just do simple tasks for them in order to get them done quicker, even though they are capable of getting them done themselves. Even if we are able to identify ourselves what our clients need to do, and we can get it done quicker and easier, it is so important to let them figure out how to do it themselves. Looking at working with clients from the strength-based perspective helps with recognizing that they each have strengths and resources that they can use to do many of the things that we do for them. Learning to do things for themselves and finding out what they are capable of will give them so much more satisfaction and empowerment than if we simply do these things for them.

  101. Summer, thank you so much for sharing this! I LOVE this mission statement: helping people with disabilities shape their own future. Wow! I wish that was at least the unspoken mission statement of every organization–can you imagine what our institutions would look like, if everyone was aiming at trying to help people shape their own futures? If policy was formulated that way? It’s so hard for everyone to really practice this, Summer–my kids are older now, and I still struggle. Self-awareness, and really committing ourselves to the practice of empowerment, is at least the first step (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself!).

  102. I love this post, Melinda. This is one of the first Great lessons I have learned as a student in the field. I serve as an AmeriCorps member in addition to my practicum hours, so I am at the site more than the average student. I would be described as a “fixer” which I need to shake soon to keep my sanity, but this is something that I have struggled with. There is a line I am having to find between assisting, and enabling. Recently I was out of the clinic for a while, and was amazed at the progress some of my clients made when given the chance to complete tasks independently. I got into the trap of “this is how it has always been and interns do x,y,&z as job tasks.” instead of really analyzing what clients can do. Half of the people I serve can complete y independently, but need help with x and z. This is information I just found out! Thanks for highlighting this crucial element of this helping profession.

  103. It’s amazing what difference some distance can make, Alexa, for perspective, no? Thank you for sharing this experience!

  104. Christina Cowart

    This is so important! I have found this to be true in both my experiences of direct client practice and community organizing. When I was working with mental health court participants, I often found myself filling out applications and making phone calls for clients out of fear that they would fail to do this themselves, and that I would be faced with giving a less than stellar report to the judge the following week. I ultimately realized that I was robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to do these things on their own. When I made a point to stop doing this, I sadly did have to watch some clients fail, but other clients totally astounded me with their progress. Either way, I realized that I was doing the right thing because their graduation or termination from the program was theirs entirely. Letting go of this also allowed me to better keep my work life separate from my personal life, which is something I have always struggled with.

  105. Someone a few months ago gave me this same advice and once in awhile I remember it when I find myself in situations with clients where I feel my help would be beneficial but when I also want the client to know how to navigate what they need to by themselves.

    I wholeheartedly agree with this advice, and yes, the hard part is knowing what a client can do for themselves or what they might be able to attempt to do for themselves. The other hard part is the aspect that goes hand-in-hand with this and that is saying no to someone and setting a boundary. Saying no when someone wants me to do something is hard because after all, I’m supposed to be there to help. However, like you said, doing less can be doing more in the long term. It’s easier sometimes just to get things done yourself, especially when failure on a client’s part might have detrimental consequences for his or her life.

    I think it’s essential for one to keep perspective in these cases and think of what would help someone in the long term. Too often during these times, social workers may be short-sighted when seeking progress. Evaluating and understanding what you do and do not need to do as a social worker will also help you so that you will not be drained of energy and will be better able to serve clients with the things they really need help with.

  106. Being a mother as well as a social work student, I can completely relate to this post! Sometimes it is so much easier to just do something the “right” way (i.e., my way) than to guide our children or our clients along their own self-determining paths. When we do something for them that they truly can do themselves, we are only providing them a disservice.

    The tricky part is determining what they can and cannot do. There were many things that the students with IDD who I worked with just couldn’t do – verbally communicate, for example. They certainly could communicate effectively in nonverbal ways, though, and I was often impressed by their ingenuity as they solved problems to compensate for their disabilities. They would also pleasantly surprise me when we discovered things they could do. Their talents, as with everyone else, just needed to be unearthed and recognized.

    I guess it is the same when working with communities. Our role should really be to empower them to discover their hidden abilities and talents so they can solve their own problems. It isn’t as easy as doing the work for them, but over the long term, they will benefit the most from this approach.

  107. I really appreciate the storied relationship you made, and how though sometimes it isn’t easy sometimes with so much going on, to have the patience to allow others to stretch themselves and in turn strengthen their capabilities, that’s really what empowerment is about. I don’t have kids of my own, but it did remind me of stories growing up. When everyone is involved in the process to meet an end product, everyone can celebrate and join in the excitement of the accomplishment. Like the process of harvesting wheat and doing all of those steps to make the bread. When community organizers allow others in the community to become part of the process, that loaf of bread, in the end, tastes that much better for everyone.

  108. A good reminder, Ashley, of how the dynamic changes when we’re all working together and, then, can celebrate together. That’s not usually central to my calculus about how much I should do vs. empower to do, but it’s absolutely a component; if we’re not giving people the space to achieve their own ‘wins’, then they don’t get to celebrate having won, at least not in the same way.

  109. Good point, Ruth, especially because what someone can do is a moving target; as they grow and experiment and experience more, they’ll be able to do things they couldn’t do previously, so we have to avoid staying stuck in our perception of their capabilities, and denying them the chance to reap the fruits of their growth.

  110. Jenny D'Achiardi

    This golden rule reminds me of the ethical priniciple we have to respect the dignity and worth of a person. I think if we try to do things for others that they can actually do for themselves, it can sometimes come from a place of ‘I can do it better or faster’. This may be interpreted on the other end as ‘you are not competent’. We need to try and remember to have faith in the capacity of our clients as well as our colleagues because overdoing sends a message of distrust and honestly, disrespect. I know I can be controlling and this is something I want to curb as I have more opportunities to engage with clients and colleagues this coming year in my practicum at the library. Sometimes I overdo because I want to help people avoid making mistakes and I really must change my perspective on this. Sometimes our biggest growth comes when we do make mistakes so trying to eliminate this possibility is actually hurting those I mean to help. It is also arrogant of me to assume that my way is the best way and as I continue to grow in my practice I hope I will become more comfortable in accepting that there is no one ‘right way’ to address an issue. As I have just become a parent myself, I am beginning to see how challenging it will be to let my son do things on his own and risk him experiencing difficulty. I recall something that my nurse practitioner said to me about parenting when I was pregnant that has stuck with me and can be applied in the social work setting also. She said that I cannot try to make things perfect for my child (client or colleague) because it is not fair to him when the truth is, life is messy. The best thing I can do is be supportive when he tries something new, regardless of the outcome, because his experiences will give him confidence and build resiliency.

    • I’m so glad to see your thoughts on this, Jenny, particularly at this point in your parenting journey! I think it’s such an important point to remind ourselves that our ethical commitment to self-determination isn’t a ‘just because’ thing, or even just ‘good practice’; it’s absolutely rooted as you frame it–in our value of affirming the dignity and worth of every individual, and the sometimes radical conclusions that commitment leads to–including walking alongside our clients even when they don’t choose the path we might have outlined. This carries into other relationships, too, including in parenting; if we are really living this ‘golden rule’, then that means it has no less pull on us when it makes for a messier, harder process–because to take any other approach would be to undermine the agency of those we care about most. I look forward to seeing how your practice unfolds next year–in social work and in motherhood!

  111. I really enjoyed reading this blog post! As I was reading through it, I had a lightbulb moment and thought “wow…this is me with my foster parents when I first started!” So often, they are overwhelmed and I would make myself available at the drop of a hat, meaning I would answer my phone late at night when I was off work, and despite being “off” I was never really off. It took me a few months to build better boundaries and realize “they don’t need me 24/7, they can handle this from 5pm-8am the next day, and if not, that is what oncall is for.” I realized I was making my clients dependent on me, not independent. I realized my self-care was going downhill, and made the change to have better boundaries, because they CAN do things without me. They will survive until I call them back the next day. It was me who thought if I didn’t make myself reachable 24/7 I was failing, which is not the case.

  112. Thanks for this reflection, Morgan–it also occurs to me that this change in how you practice also has implications for the organization, since now your coworkers have greater opportunities to fulfill their expected roles and, then, to experience being relied upon.

  113. I really enjoyed hearing about this golden rule and how we as social workers need to incorporate this into our practice with clients. I ran into this issue a lot when I was a case manager for youth aging out of foster care. There were certain clients who had the expectation that I would do certain things for them because those things were done for them while they were in foster care. I had to walk a fine line of having them do things themselves and me doing it for them. What I found most helpful was asking if the client felt comfortable handling the situation or if I needed to be the one to take the initial steps for them. There were of course clients that were not always comfortable speaking up which in this case I believe is the role of the social worker to develop rapport so that clients are comfortable discussing what their needs are.

    • This is a good point, Danae, about the balance here; I think that’s true in organizing, too; I have absolutely seen people not do some of the work the organizer really should be doing (e.g. identifying new leaders, investing in those promising prospects), sort of in the spirit of ’empowering’ others, but in a way that looks a lot like not getting done what needs to be done. One thing that might be different in macro practice, compared to your previous case management work, is the need to not just meet people ‘where they are’, but also to help them envision themselves where/how/who they can be…and to walk with them into that future. Otherwise, people may be ‘stuck’, when what an organizer wants to do is help people move forward–not just on their own personal journey, as in direct practice, but in terms of their leadership and ownership of the work, too.

  114. Jorden Matney-McCorkle

    This golden rule is something that I feel like I struggle with. Just like you said, as a social worker we have the instinct to help people. I have worked for different organizations that stress the importance of helping differently. Currently, I work for an organization that has begun to teach me the value of not doing for clients what they can do for themselvs. However, my previous job encouraged hands on and intrusive support. I believe that this was the case because our participants were middle school and high school students. I understood that these students needed assistance when applying to FAFSA but I tried to allow them the opportunity to complete it on their own so that they would be able to complete it in their upcoming college years. I see the importance of this golden rule and do feel uncomfortable still with sitting back and letting people do the things that they are capable of doing. I believe that this will be a skill that I will have to continue to work on throughout my career.

  115. This is a crucial point, Jorden, about how an organization advances a particular cultural stance re: how much ‘agency’ stays with those served, v. how much doing ‘good work’ is equated to being busy and doing for others. It can be a tough balance, certainly, between not doing enough and doing way too much. I think a key is to have a conversation with those we’re serving–or organizing alongside–about how we might help and how it might help them if we don’t.

  116. This post triggered a light build moment for me. I realized I am terrified of community organizing for the same reasons I am intimated by clinical social work. At my previous practicum, which was in a more clinical setting, I often asked myself the same questions you listed above when working with clients. Do we let our clients try and fail? Where do we draw the line between empowering people and abandoning them? It is extremely overwhelming, especially since we are dealing with issues that often have serious impacts on people’s lives.

    However, this semester, I have begun to realize the skills I obtained in the clinical setting also apply to community organizing. As social workers, we should be drawing on people’s strengths to empower them to advocate for change (personally or in their communities). In community organizing, we can aid them in this process by helping them identify power structures, possible advocacy tactics to utilize, and how to draw on their strengths throughout the process. However, at times, this may lead to failure. We need to prepared to deal with the repercussions of that failure.

    I have so much more to learn if I choose to embark on community organizing, but using the same skills I obtained in the clinical setting – not doing for others and supporting their decisions – is a good start.

    • This is really well-said, Emily. I appreciate how you not only draw the parallels between clinical practice and organizing, but also how you identify concrete ways you can take steps to support people’s own journeys. It’s crucial that we are careful not to squash others’ agency…and also that we fully occupy our ‘lane’, to add as much value as we can; your advice lays out a map for striking that balance.

  117. The social work ‘golden rule’ so simple yet so thoughtful. I am a person with zero patience and a need for instant gratification. I’m a list maker and I desperately want to check items off the list, this was true when I was working directly with clients as well. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t helping my clients by making that call etc. I was stealing their dignity, albeit unknowingly; truly I was denying their empowerment and autonomy. I read this post a few times because it resonated with me as it relates to my children as well. Your words really are humbling and I plan to apply this rule going forward, slowly and with some hiccups I’m sure (an old dog doesn’t learn a new trick overnight). The goal of a social worker is and should be to empower our clients essentially working ourselves out of a job. It is my belief that because our clients seek ‘help’ they are helpless when in reality they are often just under-educated; under-educated about community resources available to meet their needs. Our social services systems are so cumbersome and difficult to navigate, we are not meeting clients where they are and I do feel this is why we want to ‘help’. We need to teach a man to fish not give him a fish. Loved this post, thank you for sharing.

  118. Thanks, Beri, for this response. I revisit these ideas myself frequently too–a lot is more aspirational than applied consistently! I think, what people are often asking for is help–and what they get is (best-case scenario) a message that they are even needier than they thought, so it’s so fortunate they found us! (or, even worse), a response that conveys little faith that they’ll be able to ever do these things on their own. So, for me, it’s a lot about rethinking ‘help’. What I find helpful, when I’m struggling, is often someone to listen, troubleshoot ideas with, maybe open some doors…where, what clients/organizing partners often get is someone grabbing the wheel and steering to ‘safety’. Which, really, few of us would characterize as ‘help’!

  119. Chloe Bridge-Quigley

    A social worker is all about making sure that a client or population has what they need to live to their fullest potential. That is why clinical and community practicing can both benefit from this golden rule. It probably is difficult knowing whether a client (or a child) can do things on their own. If it is not clear just by observing, why doesn’t a social worker just ask? It is probably very deeming when a community organizer assumes that someone can’t do something because of what they have a brief understanding of. My job as a social worker is to listen to what people need and if they don’t think it is something they have the power to accomplish, then I will be able to step in. I have been learning more in an advocacy focused practicum about first steps into community organizing, but I know there is still much to learn. Certain learning opportunities will be specific to the populations I choose to organize with and I know I will not learn those skills now. I am doubtful that many of it can be learned in a classroom, but the foundation will be laid so that when the time comes I can hopefully situate myself to be as needed or not needed as possible when organizing.

  120. This is a valuable reminder, Chloe, of what we lose when we make assumptions about others…in this case, the chance to witness their success!

  121. When my daughter was just a few months old, a family friend gave me a T-shirt that said, “Fatherhood, the toughest job you’ll ever love”. I remember thinking, “Love? Fatherhood? This is TERRIFYING! I just want to do as little damage to this baby-me as possible!” Years later, I can credit this teen girl with teaching me more about myself and about life than any other human being on the planet. This kid has tested me in ways that I didn’t know could be tested. And one of the great challenges of my day-to-day with her, is to give her space to make mistakes, to accept the longer (and sometimes more painful) path that leads to her developing into a healthy and self-sufficient human being.

    As a parent, I appreciate and admire the parallels you draw between parenting and social work organizing. I draw similar connections to how I supervise and mentor others: letting go of control so that others can grow from feeling it and using it; allowing someone else to design and/or implement a program differently than I would so that they can grow from ownership and feel pride for their work–and finding growth from disasters!
    These kinds of characteristics are what I tend to admire most of the great leaders I’ve known in my life. And while I write this, I know that I have much progress to make in relinquishing control and trusting others. My kiddo lets me know that on a regular basis…with love, of course.

    • At this point, I think I see everything through the lens of parenting, which probably means that I see parallels even where they may not be apparent to others! And, YES, to having miles to walk on the journey of stepping back. I take solace in the fact that I still see that incompleteness, with clear eyes!

  122. McKenzie Dick

    Growing up with a disability (Charcot-Marie-Tooth Muscular Dystrophy), it was very hard to be independent. At age two, I was just beginning to learn to walk. I had regular Botox injection in my ankles to lengthen my Achille’s tendon and casts on both my legs constantly. I was very determined at would use a toy as a walker and walk (limp) up and down the street. I could get around but I would drag one of my feet behind me. My family members would try to pick up that foot and move it forward, in an effort to help. Even at such a young age, I would become furious with them and make them stop. It was important to me that I learned how to walk on my own, just like everybody else.

    The point I am getting at, is that even when we feel like we are helping we could be preventing others from reaching their full potential. If I had not fought off my family, I might not be as good at walking today.

    • Thank you for sharing your personal story here, McKenzie. I expect that this lesson–and the painful way you learned it–will continue to inform your practice as your career moves forward. And your clients will appreciate it…except in the moments when they wish you’d do more for them, but then they’ll likely appreciate it later then, anyway!

  123. Ernesto Cortes seemed like a bright fellow, and that quote makes you think. I agree that as social workers we sometimes are overly helpful and sometimes even over extend ourselves just to help others. Even sometimes helping others too much, and like the quote says not to do, we help someone or do something for them that they can ultimately do themselves.

    I like the twist you take on the quote. Some may consider the quote to be a harsh conclusion that questions peoples abilities. But your take on sitting on your hands and allowing your co-workers and/or kids to rise to the challenge and do things on their own is an empowering take on the concept.

    • If only I was really sitting back, Colin–I think that’s 2.0, because I often feel like I’m still mentally churning, wondering what else I can/should do, watching to see if things are really going okay, and being ready to jump in. Of course, that’s not necessarily conveying to people that we trust them and are confident they can succeed…so that’s the next/real challenge!

  124. Morgan Gragert

    This is a great point to bring up for social work practice as a whole to not do for a client that they can do for themselves. I can look back at my time as a mental health case manager and see that I was very guilty of doing phone calls, answering for them, ect instead of encouraging them to do it themselves because they were capable. I can relate it to my work as a CNA in a nursing home. Often people will just do for the resident when it comes to changing their clothes and grooming because it is easier and quicker than waiting for the resident to attempt it and then still having to go back and complete the task if they did not do it completely. This is a great concept to think about and remember as I continue at my practicum and job.

    • The key for thinking about what we should and shouldn’t be doing, Morgan, to me comes down to the rationale and the counterfactual. What I mean is, what’s your motivation for helping someone change clothes rather than having them do it? If it’s your reason–you want to get it done quickly, or you feel stressed and pressured and impatient–then that’s probably a sign you shouldn’t be stepping in and taking over. But if it’s their particular state of well-being that day that’s making you do more than you might otherwise do, or if you are getting cues that they need more help for some reason, even than they normally would, then I’d look at that differently. And, then, the counterfactual–what would happen if you didn’t do…what might not be lost, that otherwise would be, and what might be gained, and how do you weigh those ‘what ifs’ and ‘but fors’ in your thinking about how much is too much, at a given moment?

  125. Ok… This one is my new favorite.
    The carseat was an amazing example. I always try to tell my one on one clients that “I won’t hold your hand because I know you can do it for yourself”, but I often get fed up with working with communities and decide that it is just easier or me to do it myself.
    This was an amazing reminder that doing so does no one any favors. I think it is super beneficial when growing as professionals to know we are capable in order to become more self sufficient and dependable, rather than being under someones thumb and not being allowed to grow.

  126. That’s a really interesting comment, Bren, that you find it harder to remember not to ‘overdo’ when working with communities, than with individuals. I guess I would think that the over-identification we can develop with an individual client would make this an even more difficult temptation to avoid. I think your success in empowering your clients to own their own progress and successes will help you take the same risks and the same steps back in macro contexts, too!

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