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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But what of the external factors, the things you aren't born with? Can kids learn particular skills to help them overcome adversity? The answer is a qualified yes. You can't teach resilience, but researchers have identified some skills--such as developing a sense of autonomy or being a good reader--that increase the chances that a child will become a productive member of society. Belief systems--whether something as straightforward as believing you have a future or as nuanced as practicing a religious faith--also play a critical role.

Resilience, researchers agree, is a complex process that is in some ways as unpredictable as the weather. "This is not a one-dimensional thing," says Arthur Reynolds, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin. "There is a sort of chain reaction that leads to resilience later, and that chain reaction begins when children are very young."

A number of negative factors may weaken resilience. Among the most common in the U.S.: violence, physical or sexual abuse, direct exposure to alcoholism and removal from the home. As the major risk factors add up, so does the toll. "It's cruel to ask a man who has no bootstraps to pick himself up by his own bootstraps," says Mark Katz, a psychologist who heads a resilience program in San Diego. "If resilience is strength under adversity, then multiple-risk exposures--four or more--limit emotional endurance."

So much for the caveats. Even the most cautious researchers agree that luck and favorable genetics aren't everything. There are concrete things you can do to help a child grow up to be a relatively happy and successful adult. Indeed, as the more innovative children's programs in the U.S. demonstrate, many of the same elements show up again and again. Among them:

HONE A TALENT Kids who are resilient have often found something to be better at than anyone else. Dance was the avenue for Perry--a skill that would set him apart. At the age of 12, he won a scholarship to study with Miami's Thomas Armour Youth Ballet. Perry rose through the ranks to become a professional dancer, a career he might resume after law school. "Ballet is not about instant gratification," says Ruth Wiesen, the group's director. "Sometimes it's very difficult for kids. They learn by showing up every day and working hard that success can be as simple as that."

FIND A CHAMPION It also helps to have a Ruth Wiesen in your life--someone who believes wholeheartedly in you, the way Wiesen has in Perry and hundreds of other budding ballet students. She recognized Perry's talent immediately, but she also saw that he needed extra attention, particularly when it came to attendance. "It was just my calling him to say, 'Come, come again and, O.K., come again' if he didn't show up for class," she says. Teachers make excellent champions, of course, but so do grandparents, coaches, police officers and janitors. The point is to take an interest and maybe have an expectation or two. Studies show that boys even more than girls need that external, emotional support and often fail to succeed without it.

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