Cultivating Independence as a Journey, Not a Destination

1: The I-word and I 

Confession time. I’ve always felt a little uneasy about “the I-word,” “independence,” especially the idea of “making” someone more independent. It’s a word that too often comes loaded with unfounded assumptions, critical comparisons, and inflexible expectations. 

Take the mother who said to me admiringly, “I wish my daughter could be as independent as you.” 

Her daughter, there for college freshman orientation just like me, was standing right next to us, and I swear I felt her shatter a little.  I suppose the mother saw a confident blind man striding purposefully with his dog guide and wished with the hopefulness of any parent that her kid would show the same ability to stand on her own feet. 

There was plenty she didn’t – couldn’t – see: that my parents had neither the resources nor the understanding of college to accompany me; that I’d already spent a year living away from my family in a new city and state; that this wasn’t my first time on campus, and so I had the rare advantage of familiarity; that I had accumulated years of martial arts and stage training to build a sense of physical confidence and competence. 

I remember making a noise and continuing on my way, feeling less like someone who’d just been complimented and more like someone carrying the combined weight of a mother’s frustration and a daughter’s shame. 

So, I don’t like the I-word and try to keep it as far from my fellow humans as possible. 

And yet … this article is supposed to offer tips on how parents and other authority figures in the lives of deafblind children can encourage independence. The following is my attempt to answer this question while helping us all avoid some of the more toxic elements of independence culture. 

2: Independence: The Journey, Not the Destination 

To begin, we need to revise our idea of independence. The overwhelming impression we get from popular culture and media sources is of independence as a fixed destination: the inevitable exit ramp off the parent/guardian-controlled highway of childhood onto the road of a self-directed, grown-up life. “Exit Independence coming up at the eighteen-mile marker! Passenger should be prepared to take the wheel and assume full control and responsibility immediately!” Key to this picture is the idea that children’s progress towards independence is – or at least should be – nearly automatic, fueled by a blend of hormones, getting older, and an increasing desire for self-expression. 

For children with low-incidence disabilities like blindness and deafblindness, there’s at least an acknowledgment that this whole exiting-into-your-own-life business might be more complicated than that. Because of this, an entire parallel curriculum has developed, a suite of semi-customizable services under the “transition” heading, designed to help disabled students prep for the big I.  Some common elements of a transition plan include: setting up a bank account; gaining possession of key “personhood” documents such as a social security card and state ID; career exploration and skills assessment; practicing time and money management; orientation and mobility lessons in the community, including familiarization with public transit and rideshare options; development of daily living skills like cooking, cleaning, and organization; and assistive technology training. 

Know When to Support

Acknowledging the complexity of becoming independent and offering transitional supports are important first steps which, frankly, I think all children could benefit from, regardless of disability status. But they are steps in the wrong direction, still pointing to “independence” as a fixed point to arrive at, an object to be gained or won with a set checklist of key achievements and tasks mastered.

The thing is, we are human beings, not nation-states. Except in the strictest legal sense, we don’t win or gain independence; we exercise it like a muscle: a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, rather mundane process of deciding the whos, what’s, where’s, when’s, how’s, and WHYs of life – and dealing with the consequences of our choices.  As with many other lifelong exercises and practices, the pomp, circumstance, and hoopla of the major milestones matter far less than the quality and consistency of the journey in between, the gradual accumulation of small steps and tiny habits. 

This means in terms of cultivating independence:  start small, start early, and start appropriately. 

Let’s explore what that looks like in a practical sense. 

3: ACE-ing Independence: Autonomy, Curiosity, and Embracing Risk 

Let’s acknowledge from the outset that it’s a confusing, challenging time to be a parent, guardian, teacher, or other child-rearing authority figure. On the one hand, “helicopter” parents regularly get put through the wringer of social contempt. At the same time, society bombards us with messages casting every aspect of childhood – from toothpaste flavor to playdates’ relative economic statuses – as “high-stakes.” Factor in the increasing levels of societal distrust that magnifies our sense of risk, and suddenly being a helicopter parent seems like a perfectly rational response: only our ceaseless vigilance and absolute control stand between our children and potential injury or existential catastrophe. For parents of deafblind children navigating the realities of medical, communication, and access needs, this sense of anxiety can be even more acute. So, the advice I will give for cultivating independence will feel… strange, maybe even downright wrong. Hear me out, in any case. 

Tip number one:

Encourage autonomy (AKA self-rule) by finding areas of your child’s daily routine where you, as parent/guardian/teacher, can step back and encourage them to step forward. In former first lady Michelle Obama’s case, this looked like her parents teaching her the use of an alarm clock and trusting that she could use it to wake up and get to school all on her own as a kindergartener. (Spoiler, she could!)

In my case, it looked like my dad walking 4-year-old me through the knobby, dial, and button-studded wonder of a combination radio/cassette player, opening a joyous world of independent reading and study long before we knew anything about the National Library Service’s Talking Books. What it looks like in your specific case, given your particular circumstances, with your unique child(ren), I cannot say. Here’s a useful rule of thumb for identifying those areas where you can – should – step back, though: ask yourself, “Why am I making this decision for my child?”  You may get some answers you’re genuinely satisfied with, things like 

  • “because they aren’t old enough yet,”  
  • “Because I have the necessary information/resources and they don’t,”  
  • “because it wouldn’t be safe,”  
  • “Because our environment is too unsupportive.”   

Then there are answers like  

  • “because it’s faster, easier, more efficient,” or  
  • “Because I’m afraid they’ll make the wrong choice,” or,  
  • “Because I’m the adult, and I can!”   

This last group of answers indicates those areas where an adult really should step back and see (surprise!) that the sky will not, in fact, fall. So go ahead, do a “decision inventory”:  Do I decide how much food is on my child’s plate, how it’s cut, and how leftovers are disposed of?  Do I whisk their clothes to the laundry when I’ve decided they’re dirty?  Do I control what activities they participate in, how they get there, what time they sleep and wake up, and which clothes they wear?  Am I in the habit of answering questions for/taking over entire conversations for them? Why? 

Practice in every situations

In both my lived and observed experience, interpersonal conversation and activity participation poses a special challenge to adults because it is easy to rationalize taking control. “This waiter seems impatient, and (my child) Blueberry finds it hard to communicate under stress, so I’ll just handle the ordering.” “Oh, the chaos and noise of the kitchen will be too overwhelming for (my child) Watermelon to navigate; the decorations area is quieter, so he can go help out there.” The irony is, given the choice, Blueberry and Watermelon might have assessed their situations and come to the same conclusions as the adults. But they aren’t given the choice, essential practice at situational and self-assessment, or the experience of negotiating access for themselves. My point is this: if independence is what we truly want of our kids, we cannot treat it like a fair-weather friend, only practiced under optimal circumstances. 

Tip number two:

practice curiosity. In accepting independence as a journey, we also accept the inevitability of missteps, stumbles, wrong turns, false starts, and standstills… failures. In our judgmental, performance-evaluating society, there are four C-words much easier to reach for: criticism of what was done wrong; comparison to someone else who’s “doing better” or “further along”; correction and control to rescue from mistakes and prevent additional ones. 

These approaches’ corrosive, spirit-crushing impact is sufficient material for a whole other article. Though harder and messier in practice, Curiosity is by far the better response to the inevitable setbacks of the independence journey.  Simply by being curious, we model that failure isn’t the end of the world but an invitation to question, assess, analyze, re-calculate, ask for help – and try again – exactly the components of a resilient mindset. The other wonderful thing curiosity does is to free everyone, adults and children alike, from rigid expectations of what independence should look like and how the journey ought to unfold. 

Tip number three:

Embrace risk. I am a chef and consequently spend much time listening to other chefs talk to each other. A common bond between us all? We have injured ourselves, broken something, burned something, undercooked something, or had some other kitchen-related disaster. It is in the very nature of cooking: risk. 

Risk is also in the nature of independence. Things will break, opportunities will be missed, and there will be injuries and heartaches, medical emergencies, and close calls.  Your child’s independence exercise might put them beyond your reach in more ways than one. Cultivating independence requires some degree of accepting the full gamut of these risks. 

On the bright side, a well-developed independence muscle – fortified by early autonomy and enriched with curiosity, as we’ve discussed – comes with an enhanced risk assessment and management capacity. That is the best insurance policy we can offer against the risky business that is living.  

4) Final Thoughts 

So often, our talk around independence is preoccupied with setting people up to “do for themselves” and “not be a burden.”   This completely misses a point that’s come clearer to me while writing this article: the greatest gift of independence lies not in what we can do for ourselves but in the freedom to choose and negotiate how we relate, what we want to contribute, and who we are to our communities. It takes a village to raise a child. Your independent child needs to become someone who can find their place in that village. It takes adults willing to step back so the child has the experience of looking and the reward of finding a place.