Adopt-A-School: Resilience in children should never be confused with tragedy

Adopt-A-School: Resilience in children should never be confused with tragedy

By recognizing “resilience” as anything other than a tragedy in the life of an impoverished child — and to speak of it as something vaguely admirable — is to ignore the conditions that caused it, no matter how well meaning the observer.

Last spring Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan, whose relentless advocacy for impoverished children has brought her international acclaim, wrote a piece in the New York Times.

The headline was: “I am Sick of Asking Children to be Resilient.”

She then proceeded to demolish the notion that the supposed resilience of children to hunger, deprivation, lack of nutritious food was something to be admired or encouraged.

The doctor — who famously exposed the danger posed to children by the levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water — took exception to any admiration of the plucky poor’s alleged ability to thrive despite hardship.

Because as she pointed out — they don’t.

And, furthermore, idealizing such “resilience” is often a feeble excuse for the rest of us to do nothing to alleviate the conditions that force the poor to apparently reach it.

In the course of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt A School (AAS) campaign that began nine years ago and has distributed more than $7 million to schools to feed and clothe children, there has been an undercurrent of criticism from some quarters that our stories were too negative, focusing on the plight of impoverished children and families while ignoring their “resilience” which we ought to be writing about.

However, to do that would be to accept the proposition that there was something noble in what is essentially dreadful — an imagined virtue being created by hunger, want, neglect and trauma.

Who would want their child — or anybody’s child — to experience those evils? So why when they are visited upon the children of the poor are they imagined to be potentially character building?

To be put through a process that would result in such resilience is the last thing a child needs.

By recognizing “resilience” as anything other than a tragedy in the life of an impoverished child — and to speak of it as something vaguely admirable — is to ignore the conditions that caused it, no matter how well meaning the observer.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a professor and author, wants people to understand what it is they think they are observing.

And for good reason because they are looking at a medical condition — an illness — not as they imagine, a moral strength.

She writes thus: “Some of the babies I care for have the bad luck to be born in neighbourhoods where life expectancy is just over 64 years. Only a few miles away in a more affluent community the lifespan is 84 years …

“Science tells us that children exposed to multiple adversities both in their home and in their neighbourhoods have a far greater likelihood of challenges later in life.

“From addiction to eviction these constant pressures change children on a molecular, cellular and behavioural level and make them sick. The toxic stress can be as disruptive as environmental pollution on their bodies and brains increasing the risks of chronic diseases like asthma, and hypertension and lowering life expectancy.

“Exposure to six or more adverse childhood experiences can cut a life short by as much as 20 years.”

She cited the words of a 2019 Rhodes scholar who was asked about his journey to academia from inner-city Philadelphia where many of his friends were shot or stabbed to death.

“He spoke the truth we all should hear: ‘Don’t be happy for me that I overcame these barriers be mad as hell they exist in the first place.’”

Dr. Hanna-Attisha finished her article this way:

“Rather than hoping a child is tough enough to endure the insurmountable we must build resilient places — healthier, safer, more nurturing and just — where all children can thrive. This is where prevention and healing begins.”

In email correspondence with Dr. Hanna-Attisha she said one of her colleagues sent her this message following the article.

“Thank you for no longer asking Black children to run the gauntlet of systemic racism to be labelled ‘resilient.’ It is a smokescreen for a system that violates the human rights of children of colour and families that are denied resources.”

In her email Dr. Hanna-Attisha wrote: “Sadly it’s not just black kids, we are really failing most kids — at least in the U.S. I hope it is better in Canada.”

Is it?

Let’s take a look at the typical sort of “toxic stress” The Vancouver Sun has chronicled in it’s AAS coverage that produces this “resilience.”

• The child who pleaded with a doctor for something to eat because her mother was so poor she couldn’t afford to buy the child food and pay bus fare to get them to the appointment. Or, the teacher who pointed to a hungry seven-year-old girl eating pancakes on the first day her school opened a breakfast program (provided by AAS): “That’s the first time I have ever seen that child smile.”

• The two male volunteers from the affluent Westside delivering a donated bed and bedding to a child living in the projects off East Hasting St. They made two trips, the first to drop off the mattress and clean sheets, which they laid on the floor where the child normally slept, and the second to bring the bed frame. Preparing to erect the bed the second night they pulled the top sheet back and were stricken to find numerous mouse droppings between the sheets and realized the child was accustomed to having mice crawl all over her while she slept. They went outside and wept.

• The child with a pathological fear of insects being examined by a pediatrician who found her covered in bed bug bites. But it wasn’t the bed bugs she was afraid of, she endured them. No, it was the cockroaches that tumbled out of the overhead fan when her mother was making soup on the stove. Her mother would fish them out — but not all of them — because the child told the doctor she didn’t like the “crunchy bits.”

So here’s the question — given what Dr. Hanna-Attisha is telling us — is it now time to stop using the word “resilient” in association with children afflicted by poverty, and see it instead as a smokescreen hiding the violation of a child’s human rights?

Answer: High time.

This year over 100 schools in the province are requesting assistance from AAS so they can feed children arriving at school hungry or provide them with proper clothing.

The requests total more than $1 million.

By Gerry Bellett (

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