Stop saying children are 'resilient'

7:32 pm on 17 November 2021

By Julie Spray*

Opinion - We don't protect children by saying they're resilient. We build resilience through policy that supports children by improving systems and providing resources, writes Dr Julie Spray.

Happy kids at elementary school

Children are really good at surviving, but their survival comes with hidden costs, medical and childhood anthropologist Dr Julie Spray says Photo: 123RF

Kids at Tūrama School* in Auckland didn't have a hunger problem.

"I'm not hungry," they would tell me at lunch time with empty hands and eyes full.

They were very interested in my lunch, though. They asked what was in my sandwich, begged me to share, and, once or twice, stole an apple from my hands. They stole as a joke, of course, because as they said, they weren't hungry.

What do adults do when we know children are suffering? I ask this question now in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

About one million children worldwide have been orphaned by Covid-19; 140,000 US children have lost a caregiver. Poor kids are struggling, disabled kids are struggling.

Meanwhile, policymakers have often forgotten the inconvenient reality of disrupted childhoods, because children and parents are easy to ignore. But the kids will be okay, we often hear, and say. Children are resilient. But are they?

As an anthropologist specialising in child health, I learned about children's resilience in 2015 when I conducted research with kids aged 8-12 at their school in a socio-economically disadvantaged community.

I heard from teachers who cared fiercely for these kids. They bought stationery with their personal money for students who couldn't afford books. One teacher drove a boy to school every day to make sure he attended. But it was hard to do anything about lunch. So, the teachers talked about resilience.

The school offered "spare lunches" for children who came without. But children who asked for a spare lunch were stigmatised and teased for being poor. Consequently, most children chose to eat nothing at all.

But, "the kids adapt," one teacher assured me in an interview.

"My [students] have adapted really well. There was a time when I would make them have a spare lunch and now it's they would rather go hungry than have lunch."

The problem with the way we talk about children's resilience, is that often, we're protecting ourselves, not them. "Children are resilient" is a mantra that reassures adults that the uncertainties we fear are not harming our kids-at least, not permanently.

The Tūrama School teacher was reassuring herself when she suggested children were adapting to poverty by "choosing" to go hungry, shifting focus away from the inadequate attempts to provision them.

When we talk about children's resilience during the pandemic, we avoid the reality that our policies are often not protecting children.

Why do we cling to this idea that children are resilient? On the one hand, our concepts of children as innocent and vulnerable make evidence of their suffering unconscionable. On the other hand, adversity is often the result of forces much greater than ourselves.

Children at Tūrama School live in communities with high rates of poverty-inequities that were rooted in long histories of colonisation and systemic racism and maintained by capitalistic economic policies. There was very little that I or the teachers could do to improve their circumstances.

The idea that kids can overcome adversity through resilience gives us hope when we feel helpless. But when we focus on resilience, we also justify inaction and make children responsible for their own wellbeing.

And not all children are held equally responsible. Children in hardship are more likely to be Black or brown, so our inaction perpetuates racial inequities. The "adaptable" kids without lunch at Tūrama School were mostly Indigenous.

In the US, Black kids are expected to be more resilient to overcome systemic racism. When we describe these kids as "resilient," we're also minimising the injustices they're having to survive - and setting them up for blame when they don't.

And, research suggests that children are not innately resilient at all. Children are really good at surviving, but their survival comes with hidden costs. We misrecognise these costs; we see kids playing and think they aren't grieving. Kids tell us they're not hungry, and we believe them.

But impacts of early experience might appear in a different way than we expect, compound over time, or appear later in life. Exposure to childhood adversity correlates with a wide number of adult diseases including heart disease, depression, and cancer. Children don't bounce back like trampolines; they accommodate the costs of adversity and pay the bill later or in a different currency.

Two of the children I worked with in 2015 have now died by suicide.

We don't protect children by saying they're resilient. We build resilience through policy that supports children by improving systems and providing resources. This might look like providing all school children with a good quality free lunch. During the pandemic, this might look like well-ventilated classrooms and school counsellors to support children with grief.

Most importantly, we have to stop describing children as resilient when what we mean is, we don't know how to help.

*Dr Julie Spray is a medical and childhood anthropologist and a Research Fellow in the School of Population Health at the University of Auckland. She is author of the book The Children in Child Health: Negotiating Young Lives and Health in New Zealand

**Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs