One of the most vehement questions I get asked by both parents and educators when making presentations has to do with the potent forces of negativity that assail our children and youth. “What can I do, I’m just a mom (or a grandma…or an uncle…or one teacher)?” is a common lament. Fortunately, the resiliency research strongly challenges the mistaken belief that any single person can’t have much impact in a young person’s life in the face of the negative forces of media and peer pressure, or even in the face of child abuse, neglect, or other trauma.
I, too, used to think I didn’t have much power to make a difference when I was working as a social worker in the 1980s. I was leading “support groups” for middle school and high school students experiencing a wide variety of stressors. Due to budgetary and other limitations, the groups lasted only one school term, and met only one time a week. I used to ask myself most weeks, “What good can one hour in a group do when those kids have to go back to their environments of negative peer pressure, family dysfunction and abuse, other adults in their lives that label and judge them, or back to neighborhoods of poverty and crime?” What I didn’t understand then, but do understand now, is the potent power of protective conditions that can be provided by any and all caring adults. Looking back, I realized I instinctively filled those groups with the six primary protective conditions I have since synthesized from resiliency research. (See chapter two of Part One of my book for a detailed list of protective conditions, and a diagram of The Resiliency Wheel.) Those six protective conditions are:
o Provide caring and support;
o Provide high (but realistic) expectations for success;
o Provide opportunities for meaning participation;
o Provide pro-social bonding (to positive activities, people, organizations, etc.)
o Provide clear and consistent boundaries; and
o Provide life skills training (such things as healthy conflict resolution, setting and achieving a goal, healthy refusal and other communication skills, study skills, etc.)
One Person Can Foster Resiliency Even In the Face of Adversity
The truth about the power of protective factors is this: Even though we as caring adults cannot eliminate all the “risk factors” in a child’s life, we can-in whatever time we have-fill that child’s life with protective conditions. Protective factors buffer and mitigate the impact of the “negatives” in a child’s life, and propel children towards resilient, healthy outcomes. This is the power that every parent, extended family member, educator, counselor, neighbor, or caring adult has in the life of a young person. We are “agents of protective factors in their lives”. Many researchers have documented the power of even one such agent to turn a child’s life towards a resilient outcome, even in the face of enormous adversity (Benard, 2004, Werner & Smith, 1992, Wolin & Wolin, 1993, Wolin & Wolin, 1994).
In my own life, that one person was an extended family member, my grandmother. Werner (2003) also notes that in her research, “Teachers and school were among the most frequently encountered protective factors for children…From grade school through high school and community college, resilient youngsters encountered a favorite teacher who became a positive role model for them.” She adds, “Even among child survivors of concentration camps, a special teacher had a potent influence on their lives, provided them with warmth and caring, and taught them ‘to behave compassionately’”(p.vii).
I had the opportunity a few years ago to talk with Emmy Werner about my personal resiliency and my recognition that I might not have had such a resilient outcome from a childhood filled with great pain and adversity had it not been for my grandmother, Mary Sue Iverson. Interestingly, she was both my grandmother and, for 50 years, a public school teacher. At the time Emmy and I talked about my grandmother, we were driving through the rust-colored Native American lands of New Mexico, exploring the ancient cultures there which, unlike many modern cultures, understood and honored the power of grandparents and the extended tribe or clan.
Perhaps more forcefully than she has written about in her research reports, Emmy offered her opinion that grandmothers (and grandfathers) are significant contributors to resilient outcomes for many, and she was very interested in the information I shared about my own grandmother.
Born in 1900, my grandmother was the strongest person I have known, yet also the most consistently nurturing person I have ever known. I am certain her career as a public school teacher, which began at age 19 in a one-room schoolhouse in Arizona, contributed to the resiliency of many students. Even after she retired at age 69, for years she was the volunteer neighborhood tutor and mentor for dozens of neighbor children. But all I knew as I child was that every week-end, I could hardly wait to get “to grandma’s.” She was the one that made sure I had the necessary clothing and school supplies, help with schoolwork, appropriate discipline, money, encouragement, belief that I could do whatever I set my mind to do, and-later-college tuition, which enabled me to become the person I am today. She was that “one caring person” that, in Emmy Werner’s words, told my brothers and I “we mattered.” She did this not so much with her words but through providing bedtime stories each night at her house, countless hours of playing games, regular meals, camping trips, hand-made Halloween costumes, science project tutoring, the safety of her ordered life. Along the way, not in one-time lectures, but in how she lived, she instilled in us the values of what was right and what was wrong. She didn’t say it every day, but my brothers and I knew by her daily actions that we were deeply loved-the most powerful protective factor of all.
It took many years and a journey into adulthood for me to understand the seriousness of the abuse my brothers and I experienced from our parents, not because they didn’t love us, but because of their own problems and illnesses. And until I encountered the resiliency research, I wondered how it was I had not ended up like them. But after studying the resiliency literature, it all made sense: First and foremost, my resilient outcome was due to the power of the time I had with my grandmother. True to Werner and Smith’s (1992) research, the “buffers’ of that “protective-factor rich” relationship, made “a more profound impact on [my] life course than [did] specific risk factors or stressful life events.” (p.202).
The Grandmother (or Grandfather, Aunt, or Uncle) Brigade
Jonathan Kozol (1997) wrote in an article, “Reflections on Resiliency,” published in Principal magazine, about the “spiritual and moral” power of “grandmothers, sometimes grandfathers, and even great-grandmothers–a powerful weapon that has gone largely unnoticed by our public schools.” He called this weapon “often the greatest source of …strength” in inner-city neighborhoods. “I don’t think the public schools have made enough use of these women,” nor have school principals recognized their value, he wrote. He recommended forming “grandmothers’ brigades” in schools, and putting the grandmas in the school buildings to teach “the children and the school”, not necessarily about academics-though many, like mine did, do provide the homework help-but “a good deal about respect and moral authority and simple decency” (p 6).
Whenever I am invited to speak to educators about involving parents in children’s schooling, a popular topic these days, I encourage schools to be aware of the lesson I learned long before I read the academic research that supports it: It is important to recognize that for many children, grandparents (and/or aunts and uncles or other extended family members) are the ones that are providing the primary source of care giving. Every effort should be made to reach out and partner with these often unnoticed and unrecognized sources of support, which are in many cases making the difference between a problem-filled and resilient outcome.
One of the myths of our culture, too easy to buy into, is that whatever any of us have to contribute to the well-being of children is not enough. Philosopher and theologian Wayne Muller (1996) addressed this in his book, How, Then, Shall We Live?
We each have something to offer….
The gift of many [people]…[is] quietly building and preparing so children will do well. So many…decisions made and offered without children even knowing what was given, or that there was anything given at all. Still, the gift remains, embedded in the lives of countless children who were sent forth with love [and] caring….
These people I [am speaking] about are not saints-not in the traditional sense that they are somehow better or more holy than we. Rather, they are ordinary people following the natural impulse of kindness that rises within them. Each of us has a gift to offer to the family of the earth. While the size, shape, flavor, and texture of the gift changes from person to person, the certainty of that gift is, in my experience, undeniable (p. 243-244).
“But What About the Fact I Don’t Have Much Time!”
“But what about the fact I don’t have a lot of time?” is another common question from both family members and educators. Resiliency research supports that even small acts that take very little “clock time” have a powerful impact. As Gina Higgins (1994) reports in her book, Resilient Adults: Overcoming a Cruel Past:
Several subjects in this study…strongly recommended that those of you who touch the life of a child constructively, even briefly, should never underestimate your possible corrective impact on that child….You do not have to pull a dove out of your sleeve to make a difference….So many of the resilient emphasized that their hope was continually buttressed by the sudden kindness of strangers….Remember, too, that the surrogates [those caring adults who positively impacted the lives of subjects in this study] of the resilient were generally available for only small amounts of clock time, and some faded after a limited developmental exposure. Yet there positive impact persisted for life (pp.324 – 325).
The problem with believing we must be able to “pull a dove out” of our sleeve to make an impact is that this mistaken notion keeps us from providing little acts of caring and kindness. Often, for children who don’t have a consistent relationship with a grandmother, other family member, or long-term mentor, it is these little acts that add up over time and integrate into a [larger] broader fabric of resilience that, woven thread by thread, support a child’s overcoming (Higgins, 1994). I tell my audiences, “Be that person that provides caring and support in the life of a child. Use whatever time or other resources you have. Don’t tell yourself you are not enough.”
Over and over again, young people have told me stories of a single comment, a single act of kindness from a family member, a teacher, a “neighborhood mom or dad”, a mentor of some kind that made a huge impact at that moment of need. Often the young person didn’t even recognize its power at the time; they thought about it years later, and realized its potency.
The Good News that Goes Unreported
I’ve become convinced that the good news that goes largely unreported is that our children are supported by an army of “single individuals doing what they can.” A parent, a neighbor, a teacher, a mentor, a youth pastor, a grandmother, or uncle-any or all of these people in the life of a child make a huge impact towards resiliency that goes unrecognized and unsung. Does this mean we don’t need to fund programs of caring and support for children and youth in schools and communities? We absolutely do need such funding! Professional caregivers need means of financial support, and it is not possible to put too many protective factors in the lives of children. What I am saying, though, is that every one of us can take advantage of momentary opportunities to provide kindness, listening, encouragement, and other expressions of love and caring–the most powerful resiliency builders of all. All of these are delivered by a single person who in a single moment makes a huge impact on the life course of a child.
Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What We Have Learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.
Higgins, G. (1994). Resilient Adults: Overcoming a Cruel Past. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kozol, J. (1997). Reflections on resiliency. Principal, 77 (2), 5-7.
Mueller, W. (1966). How, Then, Shall We Live? Four Simple Questions that Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of our Lives. New York, NY: Bantam.
Werner, E. (2003). Foreword. In N. Henderson & M. Milstein, Resiliency in Schools: Making It Happen for Students and Educators.
Werner, E. (1998). Resilience and the life-span perspective: What we have learned so far.
Resiliency In Action, 3 (4), 1,3,7-8.
Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Wolin, S. & Wolin, S. (1993). The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity. New York: Villard.
(This article is adapted from the book, Resiliency In Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risks and Building Strengths in Youth, Families, and Communities, published by Resiliency In Action, resiliency.com. Copyright 2007 Resiliency In Action, Inc., all rights reserved.)
by Nan Henderson, M.S.W.