THE BLOG

Falling Up

06/05/2014 03:30 pm ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014
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A growing body of work on youth resiliency, character development and protective factors points to the efficacy of struggle -- even failure -- in best preparing young people to find fulfillment and advancement.

The pioneering research of Norman Garmezy, who found that urban poverty does not necessarily translate into problematic behavior, and that of Bonnie Bernard, who focuses on caring relationships as essential in communicating confidence in a young person's innate ability to bounce back from adversity, have lent important understanding of the human experience and the role of challenges in arming young people with the tools they'll need for success.

Similarly, Steven and Sybil Wolan's Project Resilience has identified clusters of strengths that are mobilized in the struggle with hardship.

What are they?

  • Insight
  • Independence
  • Relationships
  • Initiative
  • Creativity
  • Humor
  • Morality
In contrast, it has been suggested by some that we rush to superimpose our own problem-solving prowess and metrics of success on young people who benefit most from establishing their own. Sally Koslow, author of Slouching Toward Adulthood (Viking, 2012), joins philosophically with Madeleine Levine, author of The Price of Privilege (HarperCollins, 2006), in warning against what Levine calls "doing for them what they can do for themselves," lest we unwittingly arrest their personal development before it has really begun.


Bernard, in "The Foundations of the Resiliency Framework: From Research to Practice" (resiliency.com), says, "Resiliency research documents the characteristics of family, school and community environments that elicit and foster natural resiliency in children," altering or reversing potential negative outcomes.

No one is really suggesting the kids go it alone.

Rather, there are many aspects of parenting youth that suggest an active, influential role on the part of adults is most helpful in guiding children through the inevitable shoals of life and into calmer waters. Project Resilience also speaks to caring adults, high expectations and opportunities as important "external" considerations informing positive youth outcomes.

Indeed, in his book, How Children Succeed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), Paul Tough argues that doing well is related to such things as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness and self-control -- all things that can be taught and modeled by adult mentors.

Similar themes can be found in recent research on character development from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University. The conclusion: "Life lessons" learned during adolescence -- such as those related to individual responsibility and the importance of personal initiative -- inform character development and inspire social entrepreneurship for the benefit of others. The character traits identified in those who had engaged in social entrepreneurship include motivation, initiative, sociability, adaptability and optimism.

That last one is important, as "positive thinking" has been linked to longer lives, less depression and better coping skills during times of hardship and stress (Mayo Clinic, 2014).

Here again were found the fingerprints of influential adults.

Some argue that perhaps we're taking the resiliency thing a little too far. In a May 2014 New York Times article, "Do Our Kids Get Off Too Easy," Alfie Kohn challenges assumptions that the best way to help children move forward is to make sure they have lots of miserable experiences in childhood. Kohn notes that studies of young people who attended nontraditional schools that allow significant autonomy and provide an unusual amount of nurturing show that most seemed quite capable of succeeding in college and the workforce. He also cites research from Israel, the United States and Belgium that suggests it is the "conditional nature" of parental affection that engenders a "fragile, contingent and unstable sense of self."

Like much of the work on the social science landscape, the truth may come down to compromise rather than polar opposites. Is it OK to discourage dodgeball because it makes kids targets? Sure. How about certificates for participation? Why not? And is a high self-esteem really an outcome to avoid? Not really.

Not too much and not too little. Without a doubt, it can be difficult to ascertain any child's propensity for success or tolerance for failure.

A balanced approach to positive risk-taking and resilience is reflected in the words of 19-year-old Michael Goodgame, who was tragically killed in a March 2014 automobile accident while on his way to an athletic competition with four of his teammates from Carleton College. His comments speak to the value of having room to roam, to spread one's wings, to deal with adversity, to be resilient and to press on.

Michael wrote,

When I ask myself when it is that I learn and grow as a human being, I find myself thinking not of times when I carefully measured results and possible outcomes, but of times when I took a risk or did something out of character. Building the confidence to attack what I do, not knowing what may come of it -- that's what will get me where I want to go. This makes for a sort of path. I may slow down or stumble on the path, but I won't turn back.

Instructive words from a remarkable young man... echoing the essence of falling up.