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Debunking the myth of the rugged, and resilient, individual

There are no rugged, resilient children. It's the well-supported who succeed!

I was speaking the other day with a colleague of mine, a biology professor, explaining to him that my research on what makes children resilient is telling me that individual traits like a sense of humour or perseverance count much less than ecological factors. What's really important is the type of family one has, the quality of one's neighbourhood, and whether politicians set policies that do simple things like address poverty, provide good education, and ensure everyone has access to health care, one way or another. The biologist just smirked, like he was talking to a small child. "Of course," he told me, "to biologists, resilience is always a quality of the system, not the individual organism."

And yet we persist with this gross, victim-blaming exaggeration that if only you are smart enough, fast enough, lucky enough, and enough people like you, then anything is possible. Try telling that to the AIDS orphans I meet through my research in South Africa and Tanzania, or street children in Thailand and Colombia. It's the same closer to home here in North America. Our children's individual characteristics are important when it comes to survival during tough times, but those traits are not as important as what we as their caregivers provide them.

It works like this. Take one hundred kids and raise them in a crumbling neighbourhood where the jobless rate is more than 50%, most of the homes are occupied by single parent-led families, and gunfire is a common bedtime lullaby. Some children will survive that mess. Most studies suggest that perhaps 20% will emerge unscathed, another 40% might not tumble into delinquency, but not manage to do much except recreate the same cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement. Forty percent will develop serious problems requiring vast sums of money from the state in terms of prisons, hospitals, addictions counselors, and mental health facilities.

Now consider what would happen if we focused our spending on the neighbourhoods most in need? An initiative called Pathways to Education ( does just this, identifying one housing project or small neighbourhood school where every child is offered extra help. That includes one-on-one supports and advocacy, group mentoring with caring adults, academic support that children can get after school with trained tutors, and financial support, including money that is put away starting in grade nine for every year they attend high school (by the time they graduate, it's enough to pay for their first few years in a college, university or vocational program).

There are lots of similar examples to Pathways, but the point is that by changing the environment around the child and making it more supportive, almost all children succeed. Rates of absenteeism among grade nines dropped as much as 52% in the first year of the program. Students who participated show rates of participation in post-secondary education higher than the national average, and are much more likely to complete their degrees than post-secondary students as a whole.

The long term cost savings are enormous, with state dependents becoming taxpayers, homeowners and good citizens.

The myth of the rugged individual is nothing more than a salve we put on our collective conscience to avoid the hard truth that a fair and just society needs to ensure that the most vulnerable are given a little extra help along the way. Expecting people to be resilient on their own isn't good for any of us. Those with more advantages end up in gated communities, and fearful of crime, or supporting huge numbers of people that drain state resources, generation after generation.

A more progressive way of thinking about our children's resilience is to change the odds stacked against them. We need to think systemically. Change a child's neighbourhood, and odds are that more than 80% of children are going to do just fine regardless how motivated they are to change or whether they have the right stuff to succeed.

Maybe the biologist had it right after all. Plant a seed in fertile ground that is protected from pests and it grows despite itself. Plant it in a barren despoiled patch of dirt and a few seeds will grow as much by chance as anything else. For my money, I'd tend to favour putting a little more effort up front to guarantee I reap I larger crop. If I do, I'll have the research and practice-based evidence on my side. I'll also have a lot safer, more productive society full of children doing well despite the disadvantage into which they were born.