Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Why I took my children to Colombia for the Holidays: Part 1

A trip to the Amazon teaches children much about resilience

In a small village on the Amazon river, my 14-year-old daughter Meg, 16-year-old son Scott, and I watched a soccer tournament played by barefoot men on a muddy sluice of a field. The first prize was a large pig that was then cooked and shared among everyone in the village who's team won. No wonder it was the women, watching from the sidelines who were the most boisterous fans.

That is just one of a kaleidoscope of images from the week we spent at an ecolodge that was next to the village of Palmari, Brazil (on the border with Colombia). The physical geography of the jungle proved just as interesting as the people living under its canopy. We felt like invaders, the permanence and threat posed by that ecosystem all-powerful. Everywhere termites, crocodiles, snakes and spiders larger than my hand threatened to take back anything human's built.

I like to bring my children to places like that, beyond the Disney theme parks and strip malls. They find something there that tells them a lot about themselves and their place in the world. I think it builds their resilience, too. They understand that their taken-for-granted assumptions about how the world is are simply narrow interpretations. We watched in awe as three small boys navigated their little canoe across the river, with barely an inch of freeboard, and not an adult to supervise them. On the shore nearby, a 5-year-old used a machete to hack away tree roots while his 3-year-old sister stood next to him, oblivious to the danger of the swinging blade. And to think what we worry about in our suburbs!

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There is a school of thought called social constructionism that suggests that our identity and our knowledge of the world is negotiated through social interaction. We have no fixed inner being, no selfhood, apart from what we hear and learn about ourselves from others. We are handed a language and from the words available to us, we name who we are and what we believe. Live a week in the Amazon, and it's easy to see the assumptions we make day-to-day about the way things should be, especially when it comes to our children's lives.

It worries me that so few of us ever leave the all-inclusives and try to understand the lives of the people who serve us drinks, or clean our rooms on cruise ships. It worries me too, that we get so little real news about these people's lives. If we did go looking for more understanding we might find that it's our communities that lack some very basic things that others have in abundance. When was the last time your community held a dinner together? When was the last time your child did something adventuresome, unsupervised by an adult? In my studies of at-risk kids all around the world (see www.resilienceresearch.org) I have discovered that there are things families and communities give kids that are more important than new computers and dozens of pairs of jeans.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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