Americans love to believe success emerges from the crucible of adversity. There is no end to post-industrial Horatio Alger-esque myths about the hardscrabble origins of successful men (they are almost always men). These stories suggest that poverty and abuse teach valuable lessons that allow kids to hurdle future barriers and build empires. But much like Alger’s old-timey tales of poor boys making it big, the idea of hardship resulting in resilience is but fiction.
“Hardships that are intense, prolonged and uncontrollable don’t create resilience, they create trauma,” explains Dr. Jim Taylor, author of five parenting books including Your Children Are Listening. “If it was just a matter of exposing kids to hardships, then poor kids would be the most resilient kids in the world. But they’re not necessarily.”
Might a kid who was raised in the depth of adversity rise above their circumstances and become exceptionally resilient and successful? Sure. It happens. But much of what makes these stories notable is the fact that it’s rare. The reality is far more bleak. “Growing up with true hardship creates a stress reaction,” Taylor says. “Kids are in a constant state of threat mode. The body and the mind deteriorates under that persistent stress.”
Such stresses can even affect brain development. “At a very practical level, at school, you can’t learn effectively because your adrenal glands are firing and you’re not able to focus or relax,” Taylor says. In a more general sense, consistent lack of control leads children to believe that life is to be endured—creating feelings of helplessness, passivity, and low self esteem. And the hyper-vigilance of children exposed to hardships like unsafe neighborhoods, poverty, or abusive parents makes it difficult for them to develop healthy emotional connections with others.
Taylor notes that there is a difference between prolonged, uncontrollable traumatic hardship and the typical daily struggles and challenges many American children face on a daily basis. “I’m a huge believer in having your kids experience adversity, challenges, setbacks, and failures,” Taylor says. “But they need to be taught a healthy perspective…Failures are not the end of the world. They teach important lessons, and you’ll get through it.”
But while a kid may look like they’re being traumatized by their math or sports struggles, it’s important to note that these are not the brutal hardships of poverty. Even periodic teasing or bullying likely won’t scar a child for life. That’s particularly true if parents help kids develop a good work ethic, a general optimistic outlook on life, and give them the tools they need to tackle stress, like intentional breathing and mindfulness.
“The fact is that life is a challenge even if you’re well educated and came from means,” Taylor says. “If you didn’t have those experiences early in life to figure out how to deal with them, then you’re going experience them as an adult and not know how to deal with them.”
The problem is that we tell kids stuck in poverty that hardship will teach them lessons that will help them succeed, while doing all we can to keep better off children from feeling struggle of any sort. It really should be the other way around. We should do everything we can to lift children out of poverty—and then let everyone else feel a little failure.