Parenting Soapbox of the Day: Please Stop Using the Word “Independent”
I’ve said this before, but I believe it bears repeating. The goal for any of us as adults (or teenagers) is not independence. The opposite of dependence might be independence, but human beings were not designed to be fully separate beings, and, frankly, if we expand our understanding of what it means to be alive, we quickly realize that independence means death. We rely on the natural world to provide us with food and water and air to breathe. We rely on microorganisms within our bodies to help us digest our food, etc. etc.
The goal of raising healthy young adults is interdependence. Humans have a long childhood (much longer than most of the rest of the animal kingdom) for a reason, and that is to allow for optimal physical and brain development. Even if we haven’t set up our school and economic and social systems to support it (spoiler alert: we haven’t), our job as the elders is to nurture our young until their brains and bodies are fully developed. This is typically around age 22-25. Sorry. It just is. And even after that age, these individuals will not be fully independent. I just really wish folks would stop using that term because the more we say it, the stronger the belief that it is possible, and the worse we all feel (parents and kids alike) when it doesn’t happen.
I live alone and mostly handle all my own stuff. Getting food, paying bills, feeding my pets, managing my work schedule. But I am hardly independent. I get food from the grocery store, I go to the doctor when I’m feeling sick, I take my car to the mechanic when it breaks down. Other less “practical” examples include me texting or calling a friend when I’m emotionally overwhelmed and need support or a reality check, heading outside to walk on the beach and stick my toes in the sand when I need a break from being inside, reading a really good book to expand my ideas of what is possible. It is a key life skill to be able to discern when I need some support or help and whom to reach out to in order to get those needs met. When we talk to our kids about them being “on their own” or “independent” someday, we often skip past these kinds of lessons.
How do you know what to do when something goes sideways? How did you learn that?
What are the qualities of the people you trust the most to show up for you in ways that are most helpful? How did you learn that?
Where do you get stuck when you think about asking for help? Is it paralyzing to imagine asking someone for emotional support when you’re (still) grieving the loss of a loved one a year or three later? Who taught you what it looks like to know when you need help and how to ask for it without shame?
These are key questions we as parents need to ask ourselves so that we can begin helping our kids come to terms with the fact that they will never be independent, but they will need to be interdependent. Being interdependent means learning what healthy relationships look like and how to be part of them, but because of all the subtle – and not so subtle – cultural messages we get about independence being the ultimate goal, it takes practice. The more we give our kids the impression that it is somehow shameful or signals that they are not truly grown up if they aren’t fully independent, the harder it may be for them to seek help and support when they need it, or to even admit that they need it. The mixed messages of “teamwork makes the dream work” co-existing with “you will be graded individually” are mind-bending. Normalizing the concept of relying on other people and discovering what it is that makes us and them trustworthy and accountable to each other can go a long way toward helping teens feel secure. Knowing that we aren’t expected to do everything on our own, solve every problem by ourselves, and be strong and stoic, but rather being able to rest in the larger web of friends and family, understanding and trusting that it is ok for us to ask for help builds a much stronger foundation. I think as parents, on some level we all understand this, but it is incumbent upon us to begin using the right words to convey those messages. If we say to our kids, “you can always come to me for help” in one breath and in the next, tell them, “you’re going to be out on your own someday and I need you to know how to handle this,” that’s confusing. If we pretend that independence is actually an attainable goal and voice that often enough, our kids will believe it and feel as though they’re falling short when they can’t get there. We would do a lot better to help our kids practice knowing when they need to find help and how to do it.