The (potential) ultra-conservatism of resilience theory
The concept of resilience has gained currency in many human service professions and child and youth care practice is no exception. Resilience theory, in essence, is about understanding the factors that might help someone overcome adversity. As such, it seems particularly relevant for a field that is preoccupied with the adversities in the lives of children and youth. So far so good; this is why I have generally endorsed resilience theory as a useful way of framing our work. Then I attended the International Child and Youth Care Conference held in Florida during the last week of May. One of the keynote speakers during the opening ceremonies provided a very humorous and entertaining, but also serious and research-based, overview of resilience work in Australia. He started his presentation with a joke, in which he explained that he had just published a book on the topic of resilience theory and its importance in child rearing, and that his own adult children were currently working on the sequel, which was to be titled “My Father-The Hypocrite”. Everyone laughed, myself included. But humour has a way of losing its essence over time, and after a couple of days, this particular joke kept creeping back into my mind. Now I find myself taking another look at resilience theory, with a much more cynical eye and considerable trepidation that what we think we are doing when applying this theory to our work might not be a direction we should be taking. So let me explain what has happened in that sometimes rebellious mind of mine.
I should start by acknowledging that there is a huge body of literature pertaining to resilience theory and that my comments below will without a doubt over-simplify matters. I should also point out that there have been and continue to be many very thoughtful articulations of the role of resilience in the lives of the children and youth we work with; I particularly like some of the work by Michael Ungar, perhaps because his current employer (Dalhousie University) happens to be where I spent several years pursuing my doctorate degree. Unfortunately, it has always been my experience that in practice settings, the application of theory and conceptual frameworks rarely stays true to the theory; adaptations are made in order to accommodate the specificity of the workplace, real or perceived as that might be. In fact, at the risk of sounding a little negative, I firmly believe that the rhetoric of evidence-based practice, best practices, and even program evaluation is mostly just that – rhetoric.
In most practical applications of resilience theory that I have witnessed, the process goes something like this: a review of the literature alerts managers in an agency to the fact that there are some circumstances that result in kids having greater success in life. Almost invariably, such circumstances include things like supportive families, inviting communities, strong school performance, multiple peer groups, high self-esteem, and so on. In many cases, it also includes membership in religious institutions and having faith (a careful read of at least some of the resilience literature might lead one to question whether this includes any faith or only specific faiths). The managers then undertake to determine whether or not these conditions are in place for the kids involved with their agency. Where they appear not be present, workers are instructed to make them appear. The measure of a good service becomes one whereby an agency can demonstrate that the various resiliency conditions are being met for each child or youth.
On the surface, this does appear to be a pretty decent package. Research clearly shows that kids (in the aggregate) who score high on the resilience factor scale do better than kids (in the aggregate) who don’t. So it makes some sense to ensure that all kids have access to some of these great factors. So what’s the problem? Well, the last time I checked, identity is very much determined by the many ways in which an individual interacts with and contextualizes him or herself with precisely the kinds of factors promoted by the resilience enthusiasts. And respect for identity involves protecting the spaces in which individuals make decisions about their context and their interactions. When we impose the presence of pre-identified factors in the lives of children and youth (especially youth), we are encroaching on their unique identity formation journey. We are, in other words, setting up the lives of children and youth in such a way that our rhetoric of empowerment becomes negated by the resilience infrastructure put in place to promote their success. Whenever we do anything to actively promote success, it raises the question about who gets to determine what success looks like. And since the outcomes of resilience engineering almost always reflect the values and lifestyles of the mainstream, it seems that we have found yet another wonderful way of perpetuating the current social, political and economic status quo.
For these reasons, I believe that resilience theory, particularly in its more simplified applications, reflects an ultra-conservative approach to being with children and youth who are, by their very presence in our (the child and youth care practitioners) lives, exceptional. I have always thought that it is their exceptionality that feeds their resilience. Why then are we getting busy in so many service settings ruining this exceptionality in order to impose a resilience infrastructure that reflects not their identity, but an aggregate identity of kids deemed successful by those with a vested interest in protecting the status quo (meaning the vast majority of social service professionals, including front line and management, and probably including you and I)?
The joke of the presenter at the International Conference led me into this direction. The joke is really about recognizing the exceptionality of the presenter’s own children. They are working on a sequel in which their father is labeled a hypocrite because he did not follow the commandments of resilience theory in raising his own children. Instead, I am going to guess that he did exactly what most of us try to do with our own children: we respond in the moment, in context, in relation to their journey of identity formation, which ideally, we don’t interfere with unless their safety or well being is acutely at risk.
At a much broader level, I worry very much about presenting our most exceptional children and youth with the very same foundation that gave rise to success in our world; if our war mongering, earth-punishing, anti-humanist violence is any indication, reproducing ourselves in our work with truly exceptional young people seems quite stupid. The children and youth we work with might be challenging, sometimes rude, often self-destructive; but they also are some of the few individuals not programmed to assimilate into the status quo.
I acknowledge, of course, that resilience theory really doesn’t seek to reproduce the status quo, and many articulations of resilience theory specifically seek to promote the free journey of identity formation in children and youth. The problem, as always, lies in the applications of this theory. This is why I prefer theory that does not lend itself to an easy translation to practice; I prefer theory that requires some imagination to bring to life, because at least then we can rest assured that the rules of engagement will be the outcome of a serious challenge to our self-perpetuating realities.