Believing “Children Are Resilient” May Be A Fantasy

Are Americans Thriving, Resilient or Neither?

“Kids are resilient.” How many times have I heard that in a Hollywood movie as a self-centered adult ‘does his/her thing’ at the expense of the children? How resilient are children? If you look at the whole picture of health and well-being, not that much. Believing in children’s “resilience” actually may be undermining parenting and social policy.

What does “resilient” mean? Among researchers, it usually means that the person is doing better than expected for the situation they are in; e.g., coping despite neglect. In child development it means that the person is not a clinical problem or a criminal or a drop out, even though they did not get their basic needs met in some fashion. I contrast resiliency with thriving. Thriving means that your needs were met during sensitive periods and that you have what you need for wellbeing.

Winner of the William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association in 2015

It seems like adults today want to think that a child’s poor outcome is mostly the result of genetics or a random process (which occur in evolution and everyday life) instead of realizing that poor outcomes are widespread. There is systematic deprivation that is causing systematic flaws in neuro and biological development which of course influence one’s psyche and health.

How did resilience become a standard? How did we come to view children almost as nuisances who just need minimal support? How did children’s needs become dismissable?

I think there are four basic causes.

One is that more and more parents themselves did not receive optimal care and so have no physical memory of it or intuitions for it. When you have to grow up on your own, you learn to NOT get pleasure from caring for others even though we are evolutionarily prepared to get great pleasure from caring for children. Animal studies show that poor parenting snowballs across generations, especially if natural childbirth is disrupted (which is done routinely in US healthcare).

Two, US popular culture encourages self-centeredness among everyone including parents (‘have it your way’, ‘just do it’). When is the last time you heard of the importance of parental self-sacrifice? Today parents are encouraged to shape babies around their lifestyles, like sleeping through the night–which is the last thing you want for a baby’s wellbeing. “You are going to spoil that baby” is said by people who don’t understand child development. They don’t know that babies who are allowed to cry themselves to exhaustion are more likely to turn into aggressive or depressive people.

Three, we have cultural ideologies driving our behavior. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors and cousins did not have an ideology that told them to go against their maternal and paternal instincts, to avoid touching babies and to let them cry. These would have been unthinkable practices and laughable ideas that would have put the group at increased risk for predation because unhappy children make for noisy and uncooperative children.

Four, we systematically overburden parents and families. Children need happy and unstressed caregivers. But parents are expected to care for children on their own while holding multiple jobs. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have ongoing distractions from the social life that grabbed attention and established habits of detachment and flightiness from children’s needs (e.g., electronic media, driving). We think that this is acceptable, again, because ‘children are resilient.’

So are people in the USA resilient or are they thriving? Very few of us got our basic mammalian needs met when we were young, according to evolved principles of parenting. See here. So overall we are not thriving.

Are we resilient across the nation? If you think of health outcomes, then “resiliency” drops precipitously. As research methods improve on gauging health effects of life experiences, we’re finding out that there are longterm effects of undercare on children. Just take a look at the ACE study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) which estimates that 2/3 of American adults had adverse experiences as children that are negatively affecting their health and wellbeing. The effects of abuse, neglect and trauma on physical and mental health are longterm, even with interventions.

The USA has epidemics of anxiety and depression, obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The rates of these things cover up to 2/3 of adults but it is unclear who has none of these types of problems. I would guess at 1/3 or less. Thus, as a nation we are not resilient either.

So let’s stop aiming for resilient children, which is just an excuse for minimal care, and start thinking about thriving children. To thrive, children’s needs must be met. In early life that means constant touch, no distress, breastfeeding as long as possible, multiple responsive adult caregivers, free play in nature, not to mention laughing and joyful social relations. Early life wires the brain and body for lifetime functioning. So if you want your children to flourish now and later, start with the above-named ancestral practices.

Those who put their children first and feel good about it are going to have to help the rest of us who get annoyed by the idea.

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