It is quite possible to misunderstand this otherwise useful long essay that appeared in ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Saturday (Nov. 11). It is about resilience. Celebrities and successful people – now and before – have invariably had difficult childhoods – broken homes, alcoholic and abusive parents, sexual abuse, bullying in school, etc.
Before we even begin to analyse the article, we have to state upfront that the study seems confined to the American cultural or family setting. Would the results be different in other societies? Possibly.
When one reads the article carefully, one realises that hardship is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for success or distinction later in life. Read this carefully:
Two-thirds of these high-risk children went on to have difficulties of their own, such as delinquency, unplanned pregnancies and underemployment. One-third, however, fared well. At school and at work, they did as well as, or better than, their low-risk peers from more affluent, stable homes. [Link]
Notice that two-thirds went on to have difficulties of their own. Therefore, some might be tempted to conclude that it is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition. If it is a necessary condition, then those who have comfortable lives as children should not be succeeding big. The evidence for that is mixed:
The Goertzels found that less than 15% of their famous men and women had been raised in supportive, untroubled homes, with another 10% in a mixed setting.
More interestingly, the one-third (see the earlier quoted text) who went on to be successful provided caring homes for their children:
In adulthood, they found supportive partners and built loving families that, often, differed greatly from the ones they grew up with.
The real issue is not whether one provides a rough or tough environment for their children to shine later in their lives. No one is going to wantonly deny their children comfort and affection, if they have a choice of providing them.
The question is whether and how one prepares them to face tough situations as and when they arise. Do we pamper, spoil them or readily provide support and not let them grow up on their own even as we stand ready to lend a helping hand when it becomes absolutely essential?
For example, when they have difficulties with their studies, do we abuse the school and teachers and bully them or encourage the children to work harder, to ask questions, to look inward and find out where they are going wrong and show them how to emerge out of it?
Some of the passages in the article reminds one of Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s inner search for meaning’:
Dr. Ehlers found that the extent to which prisoners had fought back in their own minds made a bigger difference than the severity of the abuse they had suffered. Those who felt mentally defeated—who felt like they were “nothing” or who quit caring what became of them—were more likely to report symptoms of PTSD later. By contrast, prisoners who had resisted from within—even if they appeared to have given up on the outside, by complying with guards or signing false confessions—fared better down the line.
So, how to enhance or cultivate resilience in children who grow up in comfortable setting? I found it hard to believe that the article does not mention the importance and usefulness of emotional security and affection that parents provide. Aren’t they supposed to be helpful for children to cope?
In fact, very successful people are usually rare. That is true by definition. So, children growing up in difficult environment can turn out to be somewhat extreme – either too successful or too badly.
Most of us will settle for our children to turn out to be moderately accomplished, emotionally stable adults who are also useful members and pillars of their community, if possible.
What do we need to do for them to tick these relatively modest goals? The article is a bit thin on that, in my view. Nonetheless, it is not empty. It offers some suggestions:
Take on long-form projects that feel like challenges rather than threats.
When life inevitably becomes difficult, own the fighter within. Resist defeat in your own mind.
Reach out to family, friends or professionals who care. … Seeking support is what resilient people do.
Engage in active coping…. Make a realistic plan to improve your situation, and work toward it day by day. Progress shores us up and calms us down.
Finally, remember the ways you have been courageous and strong. (In other words, remember your stories of successful coping and resilience).
In sum, a useful article but if not carefully read, it can be misleading and lead to incorrect inferences too. Apologies if the article is behind a paywall. I read it because I saw a link to it in the Twitter handle of Jason Zweig.