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kids these days

Comeback Kids

The ordinary roots of extraordinary resilience

What if I told you I know of a child who was born to extremely poor, illiterate parents, who lost his mother when he was only nine, and who was kicked in the head by a horse? You would not likely predict that he would become our most beloved president, the preserver of the Union, and arguably America’s all-time best political speechwriter.

Abraham Lincoln exemplified a quality that a good many children share: resilience. Such kids become competent adults despite “risk factors”—for example, coming from a poor family or having a mentally ill parent. Not that they get off scot-free. Work by Columbia University Teacher’s College professor Suniya Luthar and others tells us that they are apt to be left with internal scars. Lincoln himself was subject to fits of depression. Still, kids’ ability to overcome hardships is impressive.

Resilience has been the focus of research for decades, ever since scholars like Norman Garmezy of the University of Minnesota and Emmy Werner of the University of California at Davis called attention to the phenomenon. The main question has been how certain children beat the odds. Now studies show that they almost always enjoy counterbalancing influences, the most important of which are strong, positive relationships. Many have also developed some compensating talent. So, for instance, a child living in a crime-infested community might become an avid reader and thrive in school. Or a child with an alcoholic parent might be protected from neglect by a loving grandparent. For other young people, a faith-based community or a family down the street might make all the difference.

In other words, resilience isn’t in the child. Rather, it is in the pathway a child takes to adulthood, and in what the University of Minnesota psychologist Ann Masten and others have called “ordinary magic”—the usual kinds of supports for healthy development, which include good caregivers, good friends, good schools, and good opportunities to learn valuable skills. For Lincoln, ordinary magic took the form of a nurturing stepmother, as well as the chance to cultivate his love of language. He also got good at using humor to “plow around” (his phrase) intractable problems. Similarly, when the young Louis Armstrong was in a home for juvenile delinquents, his trumpet teacher, Peter Davis, not only helped him realize his musical promise but provided a deep human connection.

These same kinds of success stories are more than likely in the works right now. When the anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom was chronicling the effects of war on young people in areas of southern Africa, she came across communities of children living in storm drains under city streets. They had transformed the drains into real homes, with “rooms”—some areas set apart for sleeping and others for cooking. They had even decorated the walls. And the kids themselves had become like families: they actually cared for one another. Faced with incredible adversity, they had developed a way of life that could foster resilience.

Closer to home, the research on resilience has been put to good use strengthening interventions for at-risk kids. For example, at Tufts, the Healthy Families Evaluation Project headed by Ann Easterbrooks, Fran Jacobs, Jayanthi Mistry, and Jessica Goldberg is giving teen moms and their infants supports that should go a long way toward developing resilience.

With any luck, those children could grow up to be “slumdog millionaires.” They may not win fame and fortune on a quiz show like the character in the movie, but they might very well develop the kinds of close relationships that enrich life in more significant ways.

W. GEORGE SCARLETT is deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. His new book, Approaches to Behavior and Classroom Management (Sage Publications), was published in January.

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