The Importance Of Resilience

Why do some children bounce back from adversity better than others--and can that quality be taught?

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By??all??outward??appearances,??11-year-old??quashone??perry??was headed for jail or the morgue in 1989. An older brother ran with a tough crowd in the dangerous Miami neighborhood where they lived with their single mom, who worked long hours at two jobs and was barely getting by. On one particularly inauspicious day, a spat between rivals led to a drive-by shooting in which a bullet grazed Quashone. "The first thing that came to my mind was to go get my brother's gun and shoot back at the guy who did it," he recalls. Luckily for him, when he told his mother what he was planning to do, she not only talked him out of it but also quit her jobs and moved the family to a different part of Miami.

Fifteen years later, Perry's life is a blueprint for achievement. He graduated from college, is married and is starting his second semester of law school. And he owes some of that to, of all things, ballet. After the shooting, his mother insisted that he take ballet lessons after school. Perry, who loved football, was more than a little reluctant at first, but the encouragement and persistence of one teacher helped him master dance so well that he ended up playing leading roles in The Nutcracker. And that, in turn, gave him a new focus and perspective on his life. "It's scary to go back to where I used to live," he says. "It gives me the chills, how far I've come."

Why are some children like Perry able to overcome extreme circumstances--poverty, a parent's absence, a violent neighborhood--and find happiness while others are defeated by the mildest of setbacks? What allows people to start over after a horrific calamity--such as last month's tsunami in the Indian Ocean--and create a new life for themselves on the shattered foundations of the old one?

Psychologists use the word resilience to describe this ability to bounce back from adversity. "It's amazing what kids can go through," says Emmy Werner, a professor of human development at the University of California at Davis, who as a child suffered the saturation bombing of Germany during World War II. But whether the context is war, natural disaster or a more private hell, many of the same factors seem to play a role in whether children grow up to become successful adults. "Some of it is sheer luck, of course," says Werner, who began researching resilience in youngsters in the 1950s, "and the scars will be there. But, terrible as it is to say, you adapt."

Some characteristics appear to be fundamental. The strength of the parental bond established in the first three years of life, for example, seems to set the tone for the rest of our days. Studies by Werner and others that follow children to adulthood show that parental bonds influence future success more than almost any other factor. So does being born with the right personality. A child with an easygoing temperament or a certain amount of intelligence appears to have an advantage.

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