Exploring Unschooling

Exploring Unschooling

EU365: The Independence Agenda

April 25, 2024

In this episode, Pam, Anna, and Erika dive into a very interesting lens on parenting—the independence agenda. It’s fascinating to see how this seemingly reasonable goal of fostering our children’s independence can get in the way of not only our relationship with them, but their developing self-awareness and inner voice.

We talk about how different people really are, define the terms independence and autonomy, explore how it’s the “agenda” part of the independence agenda that is the problem, and lots more.

We hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!


The Living Joyfully Shop – books, courses, including Four Pillars of Unschooling, coaching calls, and more!

The Living Joyfully Network

Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.

Follow @exploringunschooling on Instagram.

Follow @pamlaricchia on Instagram and Facebook.

Check out our website, livingjoyfully.ca for more information about navigating relationships and exploring unschooling.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive The Living Joyfully Dispatch, our biweekly email newsletter, and get a free copy of Pam’s intro to unschooling ebook, What is Unschooling?

We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. This month, we’re talking about seasons—in unschooling and in life. Come and be part of the conversation!

So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting. You can check out the archive here, or find it in your your favorite podcast player.


PAM: Hello! I’m Pam Laricchia from Living Joyfully, and I am joined today by my co-hosts, Anna Brown and Erika Ellis. Hello to you both!


PAM: And today we are going to dive into a very interesting lens on parenting, and that is the independence agenda. And it’s fascinating to see how this seemingly reasonable goal of fostering our children’s independence can get in the way of not only our relationship with them, but their developing self-awareness and inner voice.

But before we get started, we want to let you know there is a new course in the Living Joyfully Shop, Four Pillars of Unschooling. And note that it is not called THE Four Pillars of Unschooling. Rather, these are four of the foundational paradigm shifts that really helped us on our unschooling journeys.

And it is not to say that there are only four. Yet, if you’re newer to unschooling and actively deschooling, you’re likely wrestling with at least one of these paradigm shifts, if not all four in some ways. And if you’ve been unschooling for years, it can often be so re-energizing, re-grounding when we revisit the fundamentals of unschooling. It helps us clear the fog a little bit and just notice the beautiful unschooling in action that is unfolding in our days.

You’ll find it in our store at LivingJoyfullyShop.com. Check it out and see if it’s a good fit for you. So, Anna, would you like to get us started talking about the independence agenda?

ANNA: I would. So, I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I feel like it first crossed my radar when I had babies. I started hearing this messaging, they need to learn to self-soothe, they should sleep by themselves, and, they’ll never be independent if you don’t push them. And that messaging just really rubbed me the wrong way. Partly it went against everything I’d learned about attachment in psychology in school, and mostly because I wanted nothing more than to be connected with these amazing humans that had come into my life. For me, I realized that I was more interested in exploring interdependence and what that could mean.

I think the richness in life is our connections and relationships. We aren’t meant to be these independent silos. Learning to be in relationship felt like a much more useful skill and lens for my kids to bring into their life and for me to continue to grow in that area, because I had a lot of baggage, thinking that I had to do it all by myself and that that was the goal. And I just didn’t really want to hand that to them, because I saw the ways that it didn’t serve me. And it’s so interesting, because we start to implement this idea and even train babies towards this independence in our culture just so early, and I think it might be a little bit more intense in the US. I’m kind of curious about that from our international audience.

But I think in other countries, they have their own pieces as well, and I just think it’s worth thinking about, where is it coming from? Who does it serve? For me, attachment theory was a much more useful lens. I found that from that securely attached place, my girls were able to explore the world and carve out lives for themselves. And so, there’s a lot here and a lot bubbling in my mind, but I’m interested to see where the conversation goes. So, what’s coming up for you, Erika?

ERIKA: Yeah, it’s such a rich and deep topic, I think. But one of the first things that popped to mind when I was thinking of the independence agenda is just that it sounds so ableist, too. It’s just not taking into account that people are different and independence, if there’s a timeline component to it, if there’s an agenda to it, which there is. Like what you’re talking about with babies, I remember there was a timeline, it was four months sleeping on their own, that kind of thing, then that is showing that what people are believing is that all babies are the same. And so, it’s just not true. And when you have a family of individual people with their individual differences, having that timeline, agenda of independence is just not going to fit.

I was also thinking that the idea of independence feels good when it’s coming from within a person for themselves. It makes me feel capable. It makes me feel like I can make my own decisions. I can do things. That’s a good feeling, but it’s coming from inside. It doesn’t feel good to have someone else tell me, you need to be able to do that by yourself. I’m not going to help you do that. That kind of thing feels like I’m alone. What if I can’t handle it?

And so, in mainstream parenting you might hear warnings like, I’m not going to be around to do this for you in 10 years, so you better learn how to do it by yourself. But that feels kind of ominous and threatening in the moment. And I just think there’s a lot of time typically for those skills to develop. And I just want my kids to know that I will help them. If I can, that’s what I will do. And it doesn’t matter what the age is and it doesn’t matter about some kind of a timeline.

So, I feel like if they’re forced into needing to do things for themselves earlier than we were expecting, for whatever reason, that they can figure that out. But in this moment, we’re all in it together. And everyone is different.

PAM: That everyone is different piece is fundamental and, for me, that “agenda” word is so important when we talk about the independence agenda. Because, as you’re saying, Erika, independence is cool. We can feel capable. It’s like, oh cool, I can do this thing myself, etc. Independence is not a bad thing, but it’s the agenda piece.

That’s like, I know when you should be able to do that thing independently or else there’s something wrong with you. But when we can lose the conventional timetable, the agenda piece, and look at supporting our child’s choices, which will include when they want to do things independently, and just be helping them along the way, what we’re doing is we’re validating, we’re supporting, we’re normalizing their unique timetable and how it unfolds for them.

And that can surely look so different not only for different kids, even different children in the same family, just because people are different. And one might do this thing independently earlier than the other child, and then it’s the complete opposite for something else. Just because people are different and the things that each child is interested in are so different. So, you see their interests and then how they want to engage with them, when opportunities for independence arise, all those things will bubble together and they will take this beautiful, unique path to what independence means for them.

And I love your ableism point, too, Erika, and one does not even need to be labeled in any sense for there to be an artificial timeline on top of the things that they should or shouldn’t be able to do. To get to that point where you can understand that this is their life, this is their path, the way their life will unfold, and that choice for independence along it. It becomes so natural when you don’t use that as a lens, when you don’t have that independence agenda on top of it all, you see it unfold because it’s naturally what humans like to do.

ANNA: Right, but I think it’s interesting to think of this independence as a goal, because that’s where it becomes this agenda piece. It’s this goal of independence. And I really wanted to peel that back, because I feel like, again, as humans, it’s the interdependence that helps us reach the places we want to reach and do the things we want to do. It’s this idea of, especially taking kids and, okay, you need to go recreate the wheel independently. We’re not going to help you. You’re not going to get any feedback. And I’m just like, is that real life? Because I have a partner that I’ve been with since I was very young, and we do things together. I’m not independently doing everything on my own. And I feel like having those relationships makes my life richer.

And so, is independence, this silo, the goal? Because, basically, the definition of independence is you’re not receiving help. You’re able to do it on your own without help. Is that the goal? Because I think when we push that on kids, it can leave them, like you’re saying, Erika, a little bit out in the cold feeling like, this is scary. And yet maybe they have these amazing goals that actually put them off into the world. But they would get there more easily and more comfortably by getting feedback and having support and help as they go. Pam?

PAM: Yeah, I’m just excited, because what bubbled up for me there is how valuable that interdependence piece is. I just always think of a child who can dress themselves and then therefore the parent expects them to dress themselves the next time. “You can do this, you can do this. You did this last week.” Whatever it is, “You did this last week.” But context means so much. And so, we can just think of that in our lives. Some days we have more energy. Some days we’re raring to go. Some days we’re not and we need more help. So, to have that in our network, to have that in our relationships.

As adults, how hard is it to ask for help? Because we have just been trained that, I should be able to do this by myself, and then we just dig ourselves a deeper and deeper hole, because either we don’t do the thing and then we feel bad that we didn’t do the thing, or we try to do the thing and it just takes the last ounce that we have. Oh my gosh, interdependence is so much more valuable at any age!

If our child’s like, “No, I don’t feel like picking an outfit and getting dressed,” and they’re not saying that nicely. They’re probably crying and whining. Those are clues for us. Oh, there is something different today that they’re just not feeling that they’re able to do this on their own. And what a gift for us to be able to help them in those moments. That’s the team, that’s the interdependence. And at any age, any age, just to normalize asking for help when you need it, it’s just so big.

ERIKA: Yeah. That’s exactly where I was going to go next. I had made a note of “needing help is not a bad thing,” and if our kids know what it’s like to feel they need help and ask for help and receive help, that will just make such a huge difference in their lives.

And so, when you were talking about the examples of context, so, something like being able to sleep on their own, that feels like once they can achieve it, now we’re good. Now they do that. And so, it can be triggering or bring up some things for us when it’s like, and now why are they not doing this? Why are they not doing the thing? And so, looking at the context and valuing that the child can come to me and say, “I’m having a hard time sleeping by myself now,” or, “I’m having a hard time falling asleep,” that’s showing us that something else is going on.

Maybe it’s brain development and now there’s all these new thoughts that are worrying them at night. There are always a lot of things going on, deeper things going on, and so I love using that as a clue to ask, what is the context? What is changing? What is growing about the kids that these things that they used to be able to do easily, now they’re saying they need help?

ANNA: Right. And I think it just translates into our adult lives, because I think all three of us have baggage in this area where it’s hard to ask for help, because we were trained in school and in whatever, that you need to do it on your own and no cheating, no this, no whatever.

I mean, “cheating” even! To call it that! In our normal lives, we all work together. And of course we collaborate and of course if I don’t know how to do this thing, Erika, help me do this thing. Wait a minute, Pam, I forgot how to do this thing. How do I do this thing? That’s natural. That makes us all better at the work that we’re doing, to be able to share our knowledge and skills. But we all grew up in this environment where you need to be by yourself at your desk and nobody can help you. And I really just wanted my kids to have a different feel of that, that it’s okay to ask for help and that, actually, we are stronger together.

PAM: It’s human resources, whatever kinds of resources that one finds one needs in this moment, not even needs, wants. I don’t have to justify it by saying I need this. I can want some help. I shouldn’t have to have excuses for it, right?

So, yeah, I think that whole independence thing is such a trigger for people. And I think a lot of the messaging is like, well, if we don’t make them do it, they won’t ever become independent, because independence is harder than being cared for.

But to me, that’s like, well, they won’t learn the hard things. They won’t learn algebra if we don’t make them learn algebra. It is all the same messaging. But, no. When human beings have the choice, there will be moments when they want to do things, if it has meaning in their life, and timetable wise, whenever it has meaning in their life. Human beings will choose to do the harder things when it’s theirs to choose.

And the context is everything. And the people are different is everything. Because what that looks like for them is what it looks like for them. That’s their truth. Not putting my expectations or my view of shoulds on top of all that. That just muddies the water. It damages our relationship. It stops me from learning who they actually are versus my vision of who I wish they were. All those pieces just get in the way. So, independence, to me, it’s just a thing. It’s just another aspect of living and I’m just going to help them explore their independence as they want to explore it.

ERIKA: Yeah. It’s like the scarcity of time feeling, where you’re jumping ahead to the future. Like, “This 4-year-old can’t put on his shoes. This is going to be terrible in 20 years,” not realizing this expanse of time that’s going to happen between now and then. And so, it’s about not letting those future fears interfere with what you’re doing with the child in front of you who is just on their own path.

ANNA: It’s those outside voices again. And we can just question them. Where are they coming from? Who is it serving? What does it mean? Why do we want that?

Because then I think that can just give us a clue of like, okay, that doesn’t have anything to do with this child in front of me, for sure. And really not even the partner in front of me or the friend in front of me, but for sure not this child in front of me.

And I think just to touch a tiny bit on those expectations, Pam, it’s like, if we have these expectations of what it looks like, we miss the learning about the actual person, because we’ve tunneled in on this expectation that they should be able to do X, Y, Z, or they should be living alone at this age, or they should be able to do this thing by this age.

We just miss who that person actually is and what their internal timetable is, and that they may be going in a completely different direction. I just don’t think it’s linear. And so, I think we miss that when we are focusing in on this linear path that so many of us grew up with. This is the progression, this is what it looks like. And I think so many of us weren’t served by that linear path, either, because I think that in reality, humans are very swirly. We do things in a very swirly way.

ERIKA: It reminding me of the little sheet that you get at a pediatrician’s office. They really do have these. These are the skills, these are the ages. Check them off one by one. And so, it can make you feel like, uh oh, this isn’t looking too good that my kid isn’t checking them off in the correct order and at the right speed. It’s really about blocking out that external stuff.

PAM: There’s a piece that comes up for me, too, that I think is an interesting question. Because in unschooling circles, we do talk a lot about autonomy, our child’s autonomy. And it’s like, well, if I’m not looking for independence, then they don’t have autonomy. But I think it’s so fascinating to think about those two, because they are not the same. Autonomy is not the same as independence. They’re very different.

When they want to make choices for themselves, they can make a choice that doesn’t look like independence for us, yet, that’s fully autonomous, because it is fully their choice in the moment.

So, if we want to talk a little bit about the theory behind it, the theory of self-determination, “Autonomy means that you have free will. That you can stand behind your actions and their values.” In other words, no one is forcing you to do something that you disagree with. “But independence means that you don’t need or accept help.” I want you to be independent. I want you to be able to do this by yourself and that you can do this without needing other people’s help. That is so different, right?

Autonomy does not require independence at all. You can absolutely be autonomous and still dependent on others or wanting others at some time (that’s the whole context piece) to help you and support you as you’re trying to do whatever the thing is. So, you can autonomously still act in accordance to your own belief and have free will and do all those things and still have the support and care of the people around you.

And, for me, that is the adult life that I want. I want to be supported by my network, by my community, by my family, whenever I need it, without having to justify it, without having to explain it. And that’s what we talk about so much when we talk about relationships and trust and connection and understanding each other.

Because when that happens, we’re not questioning, we’re not judging. We’re just like, oh, somebody’s wanting some help. Boom. I’m there. I’ll help out. And they fully have autonomy when they’re making that choice, when they’re making that ask, when somebody notices and offers. We don’t jump in and do it for them, but we can offer, we can help, we can support. It’s so different.

ANNA: And I think when we force the independence agenda, which again is pretty common actually among mainstream families, and it’s coming from a place of love, so, “They need to know how to do their laundry.” “They need to be independent and doing their laundry. I’m not going to help them,” whatever. But what it ends up fostering, again, is this silo, like, “Well, you’re not going to help me. I’m not going to help you, and I’m not going to do this.” And so, that becomes the norm.

Because we’re teaching that independence is the value, like independence is where you have value. That’s a really dangerous, slippery slope to me. And like you said, Erika, it’s so ableist for sure. But it’s like, wait a minute. It’s so potentially damaging, I think, because it stops us from wanting to help the other person. And it could even be that we’re coming at that from kindness. Well, but we don’t want to hurt their independence, when in fact, who’s that serving? I’m curious. I have my own thoughts about it. We don’t need to get into that here, but I think it’s just really peeling that back, because is that what you want? Or do you want to foster, we help each other? We support each other as a family, as friends? Because, like you said, Pam, that’s what I want right now at 55. That’s what I want.

ERIKA: Right. And it makes so much sense. I feel like once you start thinking about it like that, if the message that my kids and my family get are that we all can ask for help and get it, that’s just great. That’s a great takeaway, because that will help them all the time. But if we’re giving them the message of, you did it by yourself, that’s so much better. That’s so much better. Like, finally you did it by yourself. I feel like that totally happened to me as a kid. And it’s common and it is from a place of mostly love and support, like, I want you to be able to feel good about yourself and do things by yourself. But then it creates a whole culture of adults who don’t know how to ask for help and push through to the point of overwhelm and stress.

And that word autonomy, I can see how people could get it confused with the independence part, just because autonomous, it kind of sounds like they’re doing things on their own. And, “I want them to have autonomy,” means they are just doing their things on their own. But it’s just a different thing. That’s not what it looks like. Autonomy is making choices and not being forced to do something that you don’t want to do. So, there is nuance and it’s so interesting.

ANNA: It really is.

PAM: That can be one of the messages when we first come to unschooling that can be confusing. It’s like, oh, I’m not supposed to help them. I’m not supposed to step in and teach them things, so I don’t know what else to do. I’m just going to step back, hands off, and expect them to figure things out on their own.

And then we started equating that independence, that autonomy, as doing it themselves versus just choosing what they want to do. And then that really gets in the way, I think, of developing the relationships with them, of being in connection, of developing that trust.

And I just want to jump back to that laundry example, because that’s a beautiful thing. I love that example, because it’s like, oh, this is something they need to know when they’re out on their own. So, I need to support them in doing that thing. And then once they learn it, they should keep doing it, because someday they’re going to be out and they’re going to have to do it for themselves all the time. So, it’s like they need all this training, like years of laundry to be able to do laundry when they’re on their own. And when you think of it through that lens, it’s funny for most people, but I mean, yes, it’s definitely out of a loving space. I want to help them, I want to support them, and we can just really get in our head with that. And I think it just does so much more damage than it helps.

Because you can go to YouTube and learn how to do some laundry in 10 minutes and boom, you’ve got something washed and with whatever machine you got in front of you and you’ve built critical thinking skills. In every episode we talk about critical thinking skills, like working through problems.

I remember a call from a laundromat from Lissy when she moved to New York City at 18. I was like, oh yeah, this is how you do that. Oh my gosh, it was a two-minute phone call. Because she was like, I have this question. This isn’t the same. Different machines, different place, different country, a whole different experience. It was totally okay. That wasn’t a failure of some sort of laundry training that I didn’t do over the previous 10 years that I was like, oh, that’s a big X in my parenting.

ANNA: How cool that she called though? Because I would say I, my mom was one of those moms that, she didn’t let us do the laundry. I think she thought we would mess it up. And so, I learned laundry on my own. There wasn’t even YouTube. We just had to trial and error it and figure it out when we were on our own. But I love that Lissy could just call and you weren’t there. You didn’t know the machine, but you could talk it through with her. Again, that’s interdependence.

It’s like, okay, you have a little bit more knowledge in this. I want to understand this, because this is a little bit different than what I’m used to. There’s no failure in that on any side, and that’s what I want to foster.

And I think there are just so many ways to support the autonomy and support the independence that’s coming from them. That’s where maybe they cross over, autonomy and independence. If that choice is them wanting to do things on their own. And so, I don’t know. I just think it’s so interesting to think about. What are we trying to do? And is this path really getting us there?

ERIKA: Yeah. That was a thought that popped up for me, when they want some independence. That’s the other side of this conversation. Sometimes the kids are really the ones pushing independence in an area where maybe we’re not quite ready for it. And that’s where it’s autonomy again, giving them the choice of having more independence in an area where we kind of want to say, oh no, that’s fine. We’ll keep doing it for you. I’ll keep doing your laundry, because I’m just not sure about letting you do that yet. And so, yeah, just the context, the people are different. Each child is going to, if they’re given the chance to have that autonomy, they will show you what they want to be independent in and at what time. That’s them creating their own journey.

PAM: And they also give you the clues as to how much they want to celebrate that thing. If we celebrate it, because we’re super excited that they did it independently and we subtly give the message that doing it independently is better than needing or wanting help for it, that can get in the way, again, as you were talking about. But yes, they may want to do something independently and they may think it’s cool. We don’t have to be the stone wall all the time when it comes to doing something independently or not.

But we can take our clues from them. How exciting is this for them? We can validate like, oh yeah, that’s amazing. So cool. How fun. Whatever words work for them. We can meet them where they are in that choice, in that moment, and in that level of excitement without the expectation, again, that it would be the same every time, without subtly relaying the message that, okay, we now expect them to do that same thing every time. All those pieces.

Because we can be looking to outside to tell us what to do so often. So, if I’m going to follow our whole Unschooling Rules series, the rules of unschooling say, I’m not going to teach them. I’m not going to tell them. So, then I’m going to step back. So, we’re looking for that rule that says, okay, but in this situation we do X. Okay, now here’s a little bit different situation. Now we do Y. But no, it doesn’t work that that. There aren’t rules for us.

But if we just engage with the actual person in front of us in that moment, we have so many clues about how to engage with them, how to support them, how to validate them, how to meet them where they are in whatever level of excitement or frustration. We can understand who they are and just be with them. That is just so much more valuable than worrying about the rules. That’s our school mind. So, when you find yourself asking, but when they’re doing this and they’re feeling this, what should I do? Nope. Sorry. You’re going to have to just figure it out.

ANNA: But that’s back to what you said earlier where independence is not the bad word. What we’re calling into question is the agenda. The attachment to outcome. The expectations. And that’s what we’re calling into question here.

A friend recently was talking about supporting autonomy. That’s how she sees her role is as supporting her children’s autonomy. And so, they’re making choices. They’re wanting to do things and we’re supporting. So, it’s not the hands off, over here, you’re this autonomous being, doing things independently. It’s, yeah, we can be partners in that and I can support you in your individual choice and free will.

ERIKA: Right. And you can ask for help.

PAM: Yes! You can ask for help whenever you need it.

Thank you so much to both of you for this wonderful, wonderful conversation. And thank you to everyone for joining us. We hope you enjoyed this and that maybe you picked up a nugget or two that will be helpful on your unschooling journey.

Remember to check out our new course, Four Pillars of Unschooling in the Living Joyfully Shop at, not surprisingly, livingjoyfullyshop.com. We wish everyone a lovely week. Thanks so much.

ANNA: Take care.