Better Goals Than Independence

Photo by Kamaji Ogino from Pexels

It seems to be a given in USian culture that a parent’s duty is to see that their children are prepared to be independent on or soon after they turn 18. Our kids are meant to be able to look after their own hygiene, find and maintain a job, live alone in a house or an apartment (or negotiate a roommate arrangement), and so forth. To these ends, many caregivers of disabled children feel intense pressure to seek out therapies that will allow their children to approach independence by the allotted deadline. They post in parenting groups asking how best to potty train their children, teach them to dress themselves and how to make their own breakfast. They agonize over the timing of developmental milestones and push down their anxiety to support their kids as best they can. But, why?

Take a breath. Slow down. Listen.

Very few people are fully independent, living off the grid, and singlehandedly hunting or growing everything they eat. Humans aren’t built that way in the first place. We are social creatures. We’re meant to live in community with each other. Unfortunately, our consumerist, ableist, White Supremacy Culture has convinced too many of us that our worth is tied up in what we can produce through performance. If we don’t operate in a typical way, we are the weakest link, and we don’t deserve to be included. Absurd. Absolutely absurd. No, we are worthy simply because we are and it is morally incumbent upon other members of our culture to make sure we are safe and cared for.

Independence seems reasonable in a scenario where asking for help is regarded as weak and burdensome to others. I get it. So, reject that mentality. You don’t have to participate. Opt out and teach your kids to do the same. And, when you’re ready, embrace interdependence as a much worthier alternative to independence.

Plug your children into their community and model qualities like empathy, helpfulness, partnership, and justice. Investigate why our culture so prizes isolationism and individualism above cooperation and community, and then help your kids understand. On your way, consider other goals that will serve your children better than independence to the extent that they are able, such as:

  1. Unabashedly asking for help when it’s needed.
  2. Locating, navigating, and securing resources.
  3. Learning how to find the decision-makers.
  4. Practicing how to ask effective questions and listen actively.
  5. Becoming powerful self-advocates who will not be pushed to the side.
  6. Understanding policies and procedures.
  7. Recognizing and defending their rights.

I’m not saying that our kids shouldn’t be receiving support for self-care and daily living. Not at all. I think children should be given opportunities to gain autonomy and agency. I do not, however, believe that a caregiver choosing independence as a goal for a child is respectful or helpful. No person should be in training to become entirely self-sufficient without their explicit consent. We are an interdependent people. Teach into that reality.

Independence vs Autonomy

Many of y’all have probably figured out by now that I like to deep dive into some common concepts that we all know but, perhaps, haven’t thought about in terms of parenting. Recently, I’ve been thinking about independence versus autonomy and what the distinction means for our children.

I found this thorough explanation of the differences between these two words on Stack Exchange of all places (and I substantiated it of course):

‘Autonomous’ means ‘self-directed’. Auto – nomy. From the Greek ‘autos’ – self, and ‘nomos’ – law. It means that your drive to act comes from inside yourself.

‘Independent’ means ‘not influenced by outside forces’. It is from the french ‘in’ – not, and ‘dependant’ – hanging from. It means ‘not hanging from’ – or ‘not dependent on’ anything.

So although the meaning is similar, it is different, as you say.


He is completely autonomous as a freelancer and defines his own programme.

The child is able to play autonomously – she makes up her own games.

The freelancer is independent of any company – no-one tells him what to do.

The child is able to play independently – without her parents’ supervision.


Autonomous – self directed

Independent – not needing or not influenced by others

The sense of the words I had going into my deep dive was borne out in this explanation. I struggle to place significant value on independence as I do not believe it is a particularly important value. It is a very “American” value as this culture has come to believe any dependence on another person constitutes a moral failure, but I do not agree.

I think that we should aim to be interdependent. Not independent. Interdependence means not only that we rely on others, but they rely on us as well. It offers inherent motivation to care for both ourselves and for others. It does not shame us for our human needs and it does not present a moral high ground from which we can look down on those who have different intelligences and capacities.

Interdependence places responsibility on entire cultures rather than on individuals. It is something that is lacking in the United States where we allow our neighbors to go hungry, become victims of state violence, and be silenced by more powerful people. And, interdependence is probably better for our kids too. The push for independence is what leads parents to refuse to take forgotten lunches to school and lock children in their rooms until they clean up all on their own.

Are we putting value on the wrong thing? And, what of autonomy? Autonomy imbues children with power. It is the authority behind self-determined decisions, including how we choose to respond to difficult situations. Everyone reading this certainly wants their children to learn to do things for themselves, but on whose schedule? Is a child who can’t tie a shoe but can cook a full meal any less worthy? These are some of the many questions I have asked myself over these past weeks.

In my own little family, I do my best to ensure my children’s autonomy is as intact as possible. I try to leave decisions in their hands as much as I can without slipping into parentification. For instance, no one in my home is required or expected to clean alone. We all pitch in and the children learn through team involvement. I also don’t rush my children into developmental milestones. We don’t “potty train” kids in this house, for instance. We believe that our children will develop in their own time when given opportunities to try new things. And, that’s the key for us. If we never give the kids a chance to do something on their own, how will they ever know if they can do it? By the same token, if we force the kids to do something new, what are they learning from our coercion? And, what’s the use of teaching them to do something completely on their own without help rather than teaching them to advocate for themselves when they do need help? It all takes balance, which is something I’m learning how to do day to day. It requires deep respect for children and a willingness to actually listen. Not just hear our kids, but listen to what they are communicating in words or in behavior.

So, what’s your take? Do you value independence or autonomy? Do you prioritize one or both? How do you leverage your ability to support your children’s independence or autonomy toward fostering an anti-childist upbringing for them?