Interdependence: A Family and Church Goal
February 1971

“Interdependence: A Family and Church Goal,” Ensign, Feb. 1971, 36


A Family and Church Goal

Working together—the cooperative or collaborative use of each other’s resources—that’s interdependence.

“Don’t help me, Mother, I want to do it myself.” This was the comment of a six-year-old to her mother, who wanted to help her tie her shoes. Beginning very early for almost every child is this desire to do things on his own, to be competent enough to achieve or accomplish something with his own skills, not relying on others to come in and aid.

“Mother, I can’t do it. You’ve got to help me.” Another comment from the same little girl, who is now trying to cut out pictures with an awkward instrument called scissors. In this same child is also a need to rely on someone, to depend on another person when in difficulty and needing assistance.

These two crosscurrents seem to be present in all of us—the need to be free, independent, and capable of doing things on our own, and the need to be dependent, to have the right and the luxury of putting ourselves in the hands of others when our own resources are insufficient.

Parents and leaders see these apparently conflicting needs in children and other followers; and, depending on their own understanding of themselves and the people they lead, they respond in ways that may or may not result in the growth of the child or the subordinate, and thus enhance the relationship between the two. It is from the authority person that the child or subordinate person is trying to break free and demonstrate his own competence, and it is to the authority person one goes when he needs support and assistance. Central in the performance of any leader—parent, bishop, executive—is the manner and method he uses to respond to the needs in others.

Some parents’ style of behavior reinforces and supports the dependency of their children, with the long-range consequence that the child is incapable of functioning adequately on his own. For instance, Jane N. is a college sophomore. She calls home at least three times a week to talk with her parents, to get their advice on her courses, purchases she is going to make, activities she is considering. She feels uneasy and insecure when she has to make a decision before talking with her mother and dad. Her parents are openly pleased with Jane, and they tell their friends with pride that Jane is a real home girl who loves her family—not one of those wild types of college students. They are glad Jane relies on their judgment and that she so often calls home for advice. They feel needed and important, and their relationship with their daughter is very satisfying to them.

This example points out some of the elements of a strong dependency-development relationship. The persons in the authority positions (in this case the parents) are using the subordinate person (the daughter) to meet many of their own needs. They would probably be indignant and hurt if it were suggested that they are selfish, for being selfish in the sense that they are concerned about themselves at someone else’s expense is not part of their conscious motivation. But in a real sense they are selfish, for they unknowingly have been meeting more of their own needs without considering the long-range well-being of their daughter.

There are times when dependency is legitimate and useful. Occasions will arise in which a person needs help beyond his own resources. All of us must at times depend on others—doctors, teachers, counselors, repairmen, friends, parents—when conditions face us that are beyond our resources to handle effectively alone. Dependency becomes crippling when a person no longer seeks to develop his own resources or to move to a more collaborative stance with persons in authority, but automatically assumes he cannot do anything without the guidance, support, and influence of others.

All human beings start out in life from a position of almost complete dependency on others. The development of the child away from complete dependency is the responsibility of those adults who occupy positions of authority over him. How to use authority to help others grow is the major challenge of every parent and every person in a position of authority.

Too often authority persons become concerned with the wrong goals—parents want children who are only well behaved, teachers want only quiet classrooms or students who will do and say what the teachers want; administrators want subordinates who will obey without question, who are yes-men. One way to achieve these goals is to deliberately or unconsciously create dependency in others. Interestingly enough, many dependency-producing leaders never recognize their part in the problem, for they will often exclaim sadly, “What we need is more people who will take initiative and won’t just sit around waiting to be told what to do.”

In the other behavioral stream is the desire to be free, to “let me do it by myself.” Some have postulated, as did the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, that the basic nature of man is a condition in which every man is at war with everyone else as each tries to hammer out his own ego-centered world. If everyone actually does only what he wants, without taking others into account, we have anarchy.

As parents see this tendency in their children, they often try to stifle, reduce, or change it. Children don’t want to share their toys with others, but parents want them to share. Children want to run around the church during Sunday School, but adults want them to sit still; children don’t want to eat certain foods, but mother wants them to clean their plates.

There seems to be a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) struggle going on between the adults, who want to channel or control, and the youngsters, who want to be independent and free to do as they please. It is this basic struggle that underlies counter-dependency. Some people get caught up in a resistance pattern to those in authority and expend much time and energy in finding ways to resist the influence of those over them. They can always find a reason why the desires of the authority person can’t or shouldn’t be carried out, and they proceed to demonstrate this in a type of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes this negative response is the result of a wrong approach by the authority, be he parent, teacher, boss, or leader. Perhaps the authority initiates directions toward the subordinate in a way that is demeaning and robs the individual of personal dignity. Often no allowance is made for questions or discussion or dialogue—the parent wants his child to obey, “with no back talk.” Such an attitude creates in many persons a strong, rebellious reaction.

Some leaders seem to deliberately create situations where the subordinate questions or resists, so that the authority person can “show who is boss” and thus gain a kind of secret delight in dominating another human being. The Lord had this to say about the use and abuse of authority:

“… when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

“Hence many are called, but few are chosen.” (D&C 121:37, 39, 40.)

It should not be assumed, however, that when resistance and reaction occur, it is always the fault of the authority person. Often the authority person may be behaving in a very appropriate manner but the subordinate has been so conditioned to resent and rebel against authority that, no matter how the superior acts, the subordinate always responds negatively. Sometimes this means that in order to achieve a new and more effective level of interaction, both subordinate and authority need to reexamine their attitudes and behavior and work out a change.

The type of relationship that is both possible and desirable between authority and subordinates is called interdependence—the cooperative or collaborative using of each other’s resources. Independence is not used, for it suggests that the subordinate is freed from those in authority and goes his own way. Independence is not the most effective action in today’s world, whether it be the family, school, church, business or government organization, community, nation, or world. Of necessity we are an interdependent people. Unfortunately, most people have not learned interdependence with others. From the gospel and from writers and researchers in the field of human behavior we have the following actions that can be taken by one in authority and will lead toward greater interdependence:

1 Love and Concern. Any subordinate person must know that the person in authority over him really cares about him as a person, and not only if he does what he is told. The Savior said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.) He did not say, “I won’t love you unless you keep my commandments.”

Love of the individual is unconditional, although we may not love certain of his actions. Too many parents and other authorities present conditional love as the basis of a relationship: “I will love you only on condition that you do what I want, will be dependent on me, and will meet my needs.” Such a base leads to either dependency or rebellion.

Parents need to sit down and talk about their feelings of love and concern with their children, bishops with ward members, bosses with subordinates. Feelings of the heart need to be shared, no matter how awkward or difficult it may be. And it must be done now. Delay only increases the development of the relationship in negative directions.

2 Trust. Authority persons need to begin to display greater confidence and trust in those under them. Parents need to trust their children to make correct decisions, and need to give them that opportunity. The fearful authority is afraid others will make mistakes or won’t do the job just the way he would do it, so he hovers around, watching, checking up, until he makes them feel like the six-year-old fumbling with her shoelaces.

When Joseph Smith was asked how he governed the Latter-day Saints, his response was, “I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.” (John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 10: 57–58.) Basic in the interdependent relationship is the teaching of correct principles—that is, what the authority person must do. After the principles have been taught, he must trust others to go ahead and govern themselves, in collaboration with authority but not regulated and controlled by it.

3 Open Communication. A vital ingredient is the open sharing of information. Communication implies that there is a sender and a listener, and that there is understanding between the two. In interdependence, both authorities and subordinates have a chance to send and to listen. It is not a one-way communication system where the authority tells and others are always supposed to listen. In communication we need to share our thinking and our feelings. On almost every subject or issue people have thoughts, ideas, or opinions as well as feelings. If we want true understanding, we must share both kinds of data.

Many parents share little of their own feelings or ideas with their children. Giving directions, orders, and commands is not sharing. Sharing comes first, before the decisions are finally made, and is a process of getting thoughts and feelings out in the open so a good decision can be made.

Before decisions are made, the authority person should say, “I want to know what you think and how you feel about the issue at hand. I truly want this information. I will not judge you or punish you for being entirely truthful and candid. If we can both put all our cards on the table, and if we really have concern for each other and trust each other, we can come up with solutions that will be satisfying to all.”

4 Shared Decisions. Interdependence requires that decisions be made in a collaborative way, with all participants understanding each other and coming to a solution they all feel good about and are willing to support. Shared decisions are not necessarily fifty-fifty decisions, in the sense that each person will always demand an equal part in everything. Sometimes the father will say, “Son, you have more experience with cars than I do; I trust you to make the decision and I’ll support it.” At other times the son will respond similarly to the father, and yet at other times each will have to listen to the other and work out a solution both can support and implement.

5 Joint Action. Interdependence means working together. The carrying out of decisions requires that people work together. In too many families, parents tell their children what to do. The parents pressure, control, or punish until the child does what they demand. Too little work is planned and carried out together, where all experience the delight of a team effort, the accomplishment of things done collaboratively.

Sometimes the work requires effort alone, but it is more satisfying if it can be shared with others. If the authority person is concerned about his status or his “image,” he may prefer to avoid working with those under him; but more and more people in superior positions are learning the truth of the scripture, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11.)

In our society we see all around us the consequences of young people in rebellion. They are either in revolt against authority or have never learned how to work with authority persons. Training in collaborative problem-solving and team effort must be taught in the home. This does not mean parents allowing their children license to do whatever they please, nor does it mean children slavishly carrying out the whims of parents; rather, it is a solid condition of mutual effort based on love, concern, and trust.

  • Dr. Dyer, chairman of the new Department of Organizational Behavior at Brigham Young University, has written widely in the field of human relations and has been a consultant in training programs for corporations in the United States, as well as supervised such programs in Pakistan and Puerto Rico. He is assistant Sunday School superintendent in Edgemont Eighth Ward, Sharon East Stake.

Art by Glen Edwards