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Ordinary Magic: Families that Beat the Odds

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., Former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia


What makes one family recover from great tragedy and another come apart? What strengths does a parent find that cares for a disabled child and nurtures her abilities? Why do some children living in dangerous neighborhoods thrive in school while others are drawn to hopelessness? These are complicated questions with complicated answers. And while our scientific understanding of resiliency in families is far from complete, we do have an outline of the strengths of families that overcome the odds.

We have all heard heroic stories of children and families who lift themselves from catastrophic situations and tragic circumstances to lead lives of promise and hope. In recent years social scientists have begun to untangle the stories of resilience.

"Your child has cancer," says the doctor. A parent's nightmare: the diagnosis of a fatal disease. Bewildering and unfair, but why don't all families fall apart and become overwhelmed by this diagnosis? Resilient families faced with childhood cancer rapidly mobilize and adjust to get the needed medical attention. In two-parent families one parent often assumes primary responsibility for caring for the child who needs the medical attention and hospitalization while the other parent cares for the siblings and household. But resilient families caring for a child with a critical medical condition are not rugged individualists on their own. They report extended family members providing respite care and support. They report finding anonymous donations in the mail to help deal with the huge bills. Coping effectively with childhood cancer means finding family strengths and support from others.

The setting is a high-crime neighborhood where shootings and drug-use is common. Poor single mothers head most of the families, yet there are kids in these families who are succeeding in school and staying out of trouble; what helps make these children resilient? You might think that the answer to this question has something to do with a child's unique personal qualities, but there is growing evidence that children whose single mothers practice "no-nonsense" parenting involving high levels of monitoring, support, and involvement are less likely to be aggressive or delinquent. Also, when these children are in school classrooms that are highly organized, have clear rules, and participate in a variety of school programs there is an even greater possibility that they are doing well. Children who beat the odds against them have parents and teachers that provide love and firm guidance.

The remarkable finding from this research on resilient families is that it is common family, school and community factors that make a difference. In a review of this research, Ann Masten, professor at the University of Minnesota, concluded that resilience does not come from rare or special qualities but from the everyday magic of ordinary processes that occur in families and communities.

Perhaps this Thanksgiving we should give thanks for the ordinary processes of sharing hopes and fears with those closest to us. Maybe we should think about the ways that we play and work together that remind us "we are all in this together." What if we all shared one special story of how we have found hopefulness and meaning in the face of adversity? No one knows what the future holds; all of us will face challenges and difficulties. It is a comfort to know that the powerful tools we have to face these challenges are within our reach.


Last Updated 05/05/2009









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