Dear Lauren,

We are two girls in 8th grade. We’re friends with each other, and we both are friends with a girl in our class who’s in a wheelchair. We like this other girl, and we enjoy being friends with her. The thing is, that it sometimes gets to be too much for us. For example, she talks to us all the time about how hard her life is, and how it hurts her to walk, and how sad she is that she can’t do things. She could talk to us about it for hours, and late into the night. We really have to go to sleep, but we feel so bad for her! So we let her talk to us until really late. Sometimes we’re tired in school the next day because we stayed on the phone with her, trying to be there for her. Also, it’s really hard to always hear how down and sad she is, and how hard everything is for her.

Another thing is that she doesn’t like to go outside for recess. We feel bad for her, so we stay inside with her. If we don’t stay inside with her, she gets really annoyed. She also doesn’t think it’s fair that the rest of the class does a dance with our school song. She’ll say, “It’s so mean! Everyone else is dancing and I can’t. They shouldn’t be dancing!” We wonder if maybe we shouldn’t dance? We’re just not sure what to do because we like her, but she’s overwhelming us a little.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

She’s overwhelming you a little? It sounds like she’s manipulating you a lot.

I’m allowed to say this without sounding insensitive because I had a sister in a wheelchair for 40 years: don’t let your friend get away with murder just because she’s in a wheelchair.

Don’t give in to bad behavior just because you feel bad for someone.

Pretend your friend were not wheelchair-bound. How would you react to her behavior? It’s important not to give in to bad behavior just because you feel bad for someone. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for her.

My parents were very careful not to give in to my handicapped sister’s temper tantrums just because she was handicapped. That would have been such a disservice to her—teaching her that she can get her way by crying and screaming? They wouldn’t do that to their other children, so why should they do that to her? If we feel sorry for someone, and through our feeling sorry for them, we enable them to do bad things, what kind of a friend are we? Being a good friend (or a good parent) means calling someone on their bad behavior so they can improve it.

When I was a teenager, they gave us bumper stickers that read: “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” I’ll borrow the sentiment and tell you: “Friends don’t let friends learn that they can behave badly to get their way just because they happen to have a physical disability.”

It is kind of you to treat your friend with disabilities the same way you would treat any other friend. People learn how to behave and how not to behave based on others’ reactions to them. If every time person X hits people, nobody ever says, “Hey! You can’t do that! It hurts, and I don’t like it!” person X would never learn that hitting causes distress to others. Person X would continue hitting others, and people wouldn’t like him very much. But if you told person X “That hurts! Stop it!” or if you stopped being his friend once he hit you, and if all his friends did that to him, one after another, eventually person X would learn that hitting doesn’t get friends. That’s a service to your friend. Friends don’t let friends behave badly.

Giving in to your friend and staying in for recess with her and listening to her sad stories until all hours of the night isn’t teaching her that she’s overwhelming people. If you never teach her, then she won’t learn that lesson from you, and she will continue to overwhelm people and lose friends until someone finally tells her or shows her. Why not be the one who helps her see that she’s alienating friends?

It’s very important to do chesed—to do kindness for others. In fact, the verse in the Torah says, “Love your fellow person as you love yourself.” We are obligated to be kind to others. But notice the “as you love yourself”! We have to take care of ourselves first. In order to have the strength and the stamina to take care of others, we have to take care of ourselves, and then treat others as well as we treat ourselves. Not going outside for recess is not taking care of yourself. Staying up too late because your friend is talking to you about her sadness and pain is not taking care of yourself. Yes, you should talk to her and listen to her, but there have to be boundaries whereby you take care of yourself, as well.

I think you should listen to her for a few minutes when she starts complaining, empathize with her, validate her feelings, then say, “Can we talk about something else now?” And when she doesn’t want to go out for recess, I would say, “Come on out with us!” If she refuses to, just kindly say, “Are you sure? We’d sure love to have you out there with us in the fresh air!” If she still refuses, then tell her, “Well, we’ll see you in a few minutes, then. We have to get some fresh air!” Then go outside (and don’t feel guilty!).

A friend of mine was pregnant, and her due date is January 24, 2015. BUT she already had the baby—four months ago! Yes, her baby was born five months early. He weighed only one pound when he was born. (He’s actually doing quite well now, thank God.) Needless to say, this baby is still in the hospital. So my friend goes to visit him every day. And there is a couple who lives near the hospital whose “kindness strength” is bikur cholim—visiting the sick. This couple goes to the hospital every single night and reads books to my friend’s baby, and says Shema with him. Picture this: my friend said the husband, who is a successful lawyer, will read Curious George to the baby by putting his mouth right up to the hole in the incubator, then show the baby the pictures. What a beautiful thing to do!

Here’s the part that’s relevant to your question. My friend said: “This couple figured out which kindness they’re really good at, which kindness they love to do, and they’re good at doing. Instead of trying to do a million and one types of kindnesses, and feeling overwhelmed, they realized what they love to do, what they’re good at doing, and they do it so well.”

If you guys had written to me, “We love listening to our friend until all hours of the night. We love staying inside for recess! We just want to make sure it’s ok for our friend,” I would tell you, “It’s not good for your friend to be taught that she can manipulate to get her way.” But you’re also telling me that you feel overwhelmed. That’s not taking care of yourself. You should do kindness for others. LOTS of it. You should even do kindness when it feels uncomfortable. But you shouldn’t do kindness in a way that overwhelms you on a regular basis. That’s not following the dictum “Love your fellow person as you love yourself.”

So, to recap: 1.Treat your friend in a wheelchair just as you would a friend not in a wheelchair. 2. It’s kind to teach friends when they are hurting us/overwhelming us/annoying us, etc., so they don’t continue doing that to us and to others. 3. We are supposed to take care of others, and we are also supposed to take care of ourselves. God created us, too, and we are obligated to take care of that creation, as well. Yes, we must do kindness. It is of utmost importance. And kindness starts with taking care of the caretaker—ourselves—so that we have the wherewithal to continue to care for others.

It’s a hard balance to work out, and I give you both a lot of credit for thinking about and wondering what the right thing is.