Are our children innately resilient?

I asked two questions on social media recently:

1. Do we give ourselves too much credit for the way our children are?

2. Do you think children are innately resilient?

The first one came up because I think we spend a lot of our time consumed with trying to do the best for our children, when ‘good enough’ is enough. In other words, we can’t be perfect, and even if we were, it wouldn’t make much difference to our children.

70% of respondents agreed with me.

The second question is one that lies at the heart of Mindful Magic. Resilience is also a term that is banded around a lot in education at the moment.

Almost 70% responded with no – our children are not innately resilient.

So, here’s what I see…resilience is defined as ‘springing back to the original state’ and that definition derives from natural substances and metals being resilient in that they can return to their original state. Just like any other natural organism, we are designed to be resilient.

In contrast, one researcher describes resilience ‘the process of continual development of personal competence…in the face of adversity’ (Worsley, 2019).

More recent understandings of resilience talk about all the factors that can be measured to define whether we have high or low ‘resilience levels’, and what we can do to improve them. In other words, what we can learn to make ourselves better and increase our resilience.

So, when I asked the question on social media, I can see how it might have been unclear.

In our current education system too, there are a lot of references to ‘developing’ or ‘building’ resilience, especially in children where we deem it might be lacking. So, the term is very much caught up with ‘perseverance’.

But, this is where I think we’ve got it wrong.

I believe that resilience is absolutely innate.

As humans, we are programmed to be curious, to love, to create, to learn, to have compassion for others. These are all characteristics that are hard-wired within us from birth.

And resilience is part of that.

God forbid, a child is neglected and left to fend for themselves. That child, facing extreme adversity, will do their best to survive; to keep going.

A case I learnt about whilst teaching Sociology shows exactly this. Oxana Malaya was neglected by her alcoholic parents, and in order to survive, she began to imitate a group of dogs. She was found six years later living in dog kennels, walking and behaving like a dog. Following her rescue, she went on to learn to read and write and live a relatively normal life. She showed her innate resilience with her determination to survive.

Obviously, this is an extreme example of resilience, and thankfully, most children will never experience such a high level of trauma.

But as Masten (2001) summarises ‘most people will do well despite exposure to great adversity’.

Because this is how we’re built.

If you look at the resilience in our children when they learn to walk, no matter how many times they fall over, they keep going. The same with learning to speak, or riding a bike. There was a video going round on social media recently of a boy at a karate class, who was in tears as he tried to break a block with his hands. His friends cheered him on until he finally did it and was bundled by his friends congratulating him.

These are all examples of innate resilience. We don’t need to look outside to find resilience.

So, if resilience is innate, why does it not always seem to be present?

Why are there so many cases of mental health issues amongst our children? Why do our preschoolers get frustrated when they can’t do something? Why do some children sit at the back of the class and give up before they’ve even get started?

Where’s the innate resilience in all of these cases?

Right there. The resilience is right there, as those individuals continue to grow and develop and take action.

But, as with love, compassion, curiosity, creativity…they are innate but they can become clouded. With fear, insecurities and distrust. And not just that, but as a society, we more often look for the negatives over the positives.

As a society, if we look at ourselves as inefficient or faulty or broken, we will continue to look outside of ourselves for the solution to fix us. Rather than trusting that the answers are right there, and that we are programmed with innate okayness.

If we feel as if we don’t already have everything we need within us, we will go out and look for it. We will strive to find answers outside of ourselves.

If a child is struggling, as parents, carers or those in a position of care, we automatically try to fix them. Of course we do! We want to hunt out the root of the problem. We might also feel a need to rush in doing this too.

If a child is not engaged in learning or another element of life, we might try to find out why, or try to encourage them to get involved. We might want to know what is going on around them that has made them do or behave in a certain way.

But what if, instead of focusing on what seems to be going wrong, we could look at what is going perfectly well?

What if we could notice and acknowledge the resilience within each of us, rather than comparing one person’s ‘resilience levels’ against anothers, as if it was yet another thing to achieve or succeed in?

What is we could see the little actions that we all take every day - even if those actions in others seem arbitrary and minor?

What if we could learn to gently point our children to their own innate resilience, and trust that they are perfectly designed to uncover it, given time, space and nurturing?

So back to those two questions…

1. Do we give ourselves too much credit (or criticism) for the way our children are?

Absolutely. There is so much out of our control, that all we can do is what feels good at the time, and trust that we’re doing our best.

2. Do you think children are innately resilient?

100% And if we started from there, we would be starting from a place of security over insecurity, and a place of trust in ourselves and humanity, rather than distrust and fear.

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