Raising a resilient, 21st century generation

Who, How and Why behind increasing our children’s opportunities to become successful adults

Society loves the stories of heroes who overcame their circumstance to ascend to enviable positions in our communities. But, this ordinary magic, as American resilience scholar Ann Masten puts it, resides in all of us, including those ordinary heroes who strive to live a happier, more balanced and financially secure life than their parents. This may not sound like much! But for most South African’s living under the harsh realities of poverty, it means everything. So, how do we inspire and cultivate this resilience in our children?

People’s capacity for resilience

We spoke to Prof Rev’d Adrian D. van Breda, Professor and Head of Social Work and Community Development at the University of Johannesburg, about what he refers to as people’s capacity for resilience: “that ability that, when life knocks you down, you’re able to recover.” Currently, his research has been around youth transitions: what happens to young people transitioning from school and family (so from as young as fourteen) to the workplace and independence (early to mid-twenties) – their journey towards independence. Essentially, what are the resilience processes that enable that transition towards successful adulthood?

According to Prof van Breda (a qualified social worker and reverend himself), “although resilience is classified by psychologists as an internal personality trait or quality, we, as social workers, are particularly interested in what happens between a person and the world around them (families, friends, social services, health services, schools, communities, etc.). And, what we’re finding is that what really makes young people resilient is not so much what’s inside them, as it is how they interact with the world around them.”

Challenges of inequality and poverty

Children in a community like Thembisa face many of the challenges and negative impacts that emerge from poverty, all of which have been amplified by the recent lockdowns due to Covid-19, and the toxic inequality they face daily. These children often don’t have access to nutritious meals; rarely see their parents, as many are migrant workers (either not present for months or even most hours of the day, as they have to travel far for work – which means their capacity to care is compromised); and often don’t have a literate or well-educated family member to read to them or help them with school work. Prof van Breda points out that “these young children, compared to other young children, are therefore much more reliant on the school to provide that kind of support.”

Prof van Breda believes there is a lot we can do to develop children on a personal level, but also at a familial and school level through the development of soft skills. “I think,” says Prof van Breda, “that one of the biggest gifts we can give a child is the capacity to relate to other human beings. Those kinds of skills will lead towards negotiation skills, assertiveness, better self-esteem, etc. which all grow increasingly important as you move into adolescence, and then into adulthood.”

Teaching our children soft skills

But how do we teach these soft skills to our children? Through doing (conscious habit) and encouragement (not critique) – children often learn through copying behaviours of others and often feel more motivated when praised for what they do well or correctly. The role of teachers and parents is therefore really important. Prof van Breda goes on to state that, in his view, “investing in the emotions of the child, the self-image of a child, the social skills of a child, all of those things should be the role of teachers. And what we have learned about the resilience of children in South Africa are the ways in which teachers play a huge role in the development of a child’s self-esteem, their aspirations for the future, their belief that they can become somebody great, their ability to emotionally self-regulate, and their ability to learn to interact (social skills).”

Prof van Breda believes that we cannot place the responsibility of providing a nurturing and safe space in which children can flourish, grow and become independent on the shoulders of parents alone – that’s impossible. Rather we require the combined efforts of parents, schools, government, communities, civic organisations and churches to provide the solid foundations for our children to have a greater chance of growing into strong, resilient and independent adults. He notes, “Nokuphila Primary School and The Love Trust, and their staff, are showing this kind of commitment through the way they recognise that learners are not just brains that need filling with knowledge, but whole people who need holistic development.”

“The best interventions,” says Prof van Breda, “are where we change how we behave in relation to children. Whether we’re parents or teachers, friends, neighbours, or a minister of the church. Whatever we are, when we change how we behave in relation to children, those children’s resilience can grow. That’s the everyday living of life and that’s what builds resilience, all of which is already quite achievable.”


About Prof Rev’d Adrian D. van Breda

Adrian van Breda is Professor of Social Work and Head of the Department of Social Work and Community Development at the University of Johannesburg. He is also a priest in the Anglican Church and was a practising clinical social worker before moving into academia. Prof van Breda is the leading social work resilience scholar in South Africa, with over 60 academic publications, many in top international journals. For the past 10 years he has been studying the resilience of young people transitioning from children’s homes into young adulthood and is currently conducting research on resilience of children at Nokuphila Primary School in partnership with The Love Trust.

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