The long road to independence

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

Plotting a route to independence is best managed through a partnership between schools and parents

A few days ago I referred to a blog written by Nancy Gedge (No Right of Access to the Ordinary World March 16th). Nancy often has interesting things to say about her experiences as both a parent and a teacher. On March 24th she posted a piece titled Getting Children to do Stuff in which she describes her feelings about gaining a balance between giving children direct instructions and expecting them to conform, and giving them opportunities to make independent decisions. At times she reflects upon this issue in relation to her own son Sam who has Down’s syndrome.

Many parents can recall times when they made decisions that involved an element of risk. The first time that their child was allowed to cross the road alone, or stay out with friends late into the evening is often an occasion of some apprehension for parents. Thankfully all usually ends well and gradually the same challenges lessen until we are happy that our children can conduct themselves safely in a range of situations which were previously viewed as fraught with danger.

Nancy makes a number of interesting observations about these situations and how the way she perceives them may be different in respect of her son Sam. The protective instinct in parents is an important feature of enabling children to grow up in security and to move gradually towards independence. But as Nancy relates:-

“Sometimes, the Down Syndrome means that we are treading the same old paths for longer than we ever thought possible.  Sometimes I admit that I just want them to do what I want them to do because I want them to do it and that is that.”

When I was teaching in schools I often heard colleagues referring to parents as being “over protective.” It is an interesting expression and I appreciate the fact that we should be encouraging children to gain independence. However, I would rather a parent who was over protective than one who might be negligent. But as Nancy reminds us, not all children will move at the same pace and we need to ensure that a balance between protection and independence is maintained.

How we achieve this balance is a difficult question to answer. Nancy discusses this issue using some interesting words. Combining her roles as teacher and parent she says:-

“So when I look at the children around me, both at home and at school, I know that the very last thing I want for them is blind obedience.  I especially don’t want it when it is coupled with compliance.  And I certainly don’t want to see those qualities celebrated in end-of-term assemblies.  Yes, they need to do as they are told, yes, there are times when they need to do it straight away, no questions asked; but as they grow, as they turn from the children they are into adults, I want them to turn from obedience to discipline.”

I am interested in the journey that Nancy describes here; that involving a transition from childhood to adulthood with recognition that there should be a lessening of compliance and a move towards self-discipline. Like any journey this is generally taken in stages from unquestioning obedience through choice and decision making to independence. For all children this is a gradual progression, but for some it is a much harder route to follow. The decisions that parents have to make are often difficult and the influence of schools can be great. Teaching children to make independent choices, to understand the consequences of their actions and to recognise risk is something that can be managed within the relative security of the classroom. Opportunities to begin learning these skills need to begin early during schooling, but in some instances is left until far too late in the education process. As Nancy states, compliance can be a stifling factor on the road to independence and schools need to be aware of this.

For parents of children described as having learning disabilities the journey to independence can be longer than they would wish and certainly more arduous than for many of their children’s peers. Schools can do much to support both children and their parents on this journey if they choose so to do.

Nancy’s blog piece “Getting Children to Do Stuff” can be read at:-


4 thoughts on “The long road to independence

  1. Yes, I thought Nancy’s post was interesting – in some of our recent FDLT Y2 sessions recently we have been discussing moral development: whether and how children might become intrinsically motivated to make good choices and be guided by something within – rather than those choices be dependent on school systems based on avoiding punishment or earning a reward. We also talked about how sometimes children have to be non compliant in situations where they need to stand up for themselves or against injustice or prejudice. Compliance could make life easier in a school situation (for the school) but might not always be in the child’s best interests as they move into the adult world.

    • Hi Jean,
      These sound like interesting discussions. The idea of doing something to avoid negative consequences rather than because it is intrinsically right has been a characteristic of our history. We need adults to provide a good example
      to children here. Sometimes when our motives are positive we can take actions that have serious consequences for ourselves. Often individuals who have stood against injustice (the suffragettes for example) have been punished for their principles. I would be interested to hear the views of some of your students on these complex issues.

  2. HI, Richard, Words like obedience and compliance have special connotations in our culture. They used to be, and still are in many parts of the country, the first principles for example, for married women to be obedient and compliant with their husbands and parents -in-laws. This is considered as virtues. At home nowadays, children are encouraged to be independent. However, over protection from parents largely restricts children’s independence. At schools, obedience and compliance are still taught as important moral characters. My own generation was brought up to believe that the country, the Party and the collective are the superior. As the subordinate or inferior, we have to be obedient and compliant. Although many of my generation are now trying to raise their children to be independent, it is not the same sense of independence as you perceive. For us, the road to independence is even longer.

  3. Hi Mary,
    I can understand your frustrations. The kind of compliance you describe here often comes from a belief that one party is superior to another. Relationships built upon mutual respect and trust and with a commitment to equality are those that often the most productive because everyone is motivated to work together. I find it hard to see compliance as a virtue in all situations. Certainly we should comply with a moral code, or with the law, but where these are damaging or wrong we should campaign for change. Independence, where successful is based upon a recognition that my behaviour can affect those with whom I engage. The truly independent individual makes judgements and decisions withy a consideration for the welfare of others in mind.

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