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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 49 FEBRUARY 2003 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

in a nutshell — henry maier

The myth of independence

In contrast to other times I decided to quote (in part) from a very pertinent article by Thomas J. Cottle, "The Myth of Independence", published in the Journal of Child and Youth Care Work, Volume 17, pp. 66-72. I hope his lines have full meaning and guidance in practice for you as they do for me.

"Literally or symbolically, a generation of children have been left on their own a great deal to fend for themselves and have grown up believing that independence and autonomy are the cornerstones of mental health, while dependence is pathological. In fact these notions are pure myth. The very nature of human existence, steeped as it is in the fear of aloneness and insecurity, is one of human interdependence …

"We are concerned here with the myth of independence perpetrated by a culture that unthinkingly demands independence when in fact it is not possible to achieve. Yet despite this obvious fact, children and adolescents are constantly being taught the value of independence by their parents and teachers, and then having this value reexamined if and when they engage in some form of counseling …

"Essentially, the essay rests on a definition of independence insisting that people remain resistant to the influence or control of others. But it is our purpose to suggest that the very nature of human existence is one of human interdependence in which inevitably … our very lives are defined in great measure by the influence and yes, control of others, a fact that workers must seriously consider as they help young people ‘work through’ matters of independence, dependence, and self-sufficiency … Indeed, there are moments when it may be absolutely normal and expected that a worker finds himself or herself somewhat dependent on the client. Putting all psychological variables aside, is it not the case that workers depend on their clients for their very livelihood? …

"Literally or symbolically latch key children, a generation of people grew up believing that being on one’s own was tantamount to developing a healthy sense of individualism and, of course, the omnipresent essential known as esteem. At the same time, it was only logically alleged that independence was necessary for survival, even though this assertion is open to all sorts of questions …

"The notions of surviving and being on one’s own have perfectly concrete aspects: children in America are left on their own a great deal to fend for themselves. Or they are left in the care of people other than their parents, or to care for others who are equally dependent on someone else for survival. The six year old sits for the three year old, both of them frightened, the older one, probably, more so since she has a remarkable responsibility to fulfill … Adults constantly transform the ‘technologies of parenting’, but the needs of children haven’t changed in centuries. And one of these needs is simply to have adults around to nurture, guide and supervise …

"Granted, many teenagers demand independence and act as if they truly were living free and clear of their parents … So, like children on roller skates unable to skate backward, they push against the walls of their parents and by doing so propel themselves in some direction, at least for a while. When they get to the next wall, they merely turn around and push off all over again. Independent? Without walls, there isn’t much direction for the energy. Take the walls away, and you terrify the child, if not stymie her altogether …

"What, then, are we to do as we engage the young person struggling with issues of dependency, autonomy and self-sufficiency? We may begin by rethinking the very values and messages our society literally hurls at the young, and not merely through the mass media. We may begin to question the very nature of what is required of persons in order for them to become what we often unthinkingly label a ‘productive’ member of society. A worker might consider definitions of healthy dependency that involve care, concern, and love for others, definitions suggesting that a healthy person, young or old, must be devoted to others, and must help others define themselves by dint of the degree of responsibility they take for these others .… We are forever dependent on those others. They build the homes, the schools, the offices, the streets, just as they build the foundation of our inner worlds and narratives."

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In conclusion let me highlight the fact that the essence of our work is to foster mutual dependency. This will create a situation in which care givers and care receivers depend on one another while gaining strength from their mutual reliance upon each other.

Take care,