Movies – Does true grit just belong in movies? Or can we teach it to our children? | Young people
Sir John Bell, who is at the centre of Britain’s Covid vaccination programme, spent a year in hospital with polio as a child. That setback, he said last week, helped him to become successful: “If stuff comes at you, you just have to get on and do what’s best.” Bell thinks that, similarly, the experience of the pandemic will give this generation of young people an inoculation of resilience. “You might well end up with a generation of high achievers,” he said.
He was speaking in the same week that the Prince’s Trust warned of the lockdown’s “devastating toll” on the wellbeing of young people, especially those not in education, employment or training. The trust’s youth index gauges happiness and confidence in areas that include physical and mental health and working lives. Half of the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed said their mental health had deteriorated since the start of the pandemic.
So, can adverse experiences test the mettle to such a degree that young people bounce back strengthened? Or will the “snowflake generation” melt and become the lost group, losing opportunity after opportunity, locked away in their bedrooms?
Next month, Anne Longfield, the excellent children’s commissioner for England, gives a farewell speech in which she will argue that the government’s strategy to “build back better” must have children’s wellbeing at its heart. Currently, there’s little sign of that for all the reasons that the footballer Marcus Rashford articulates so eloquently. She has also called for politicians to take child poverty out of the “too difficult box” and develop “a big, bold, long-term plan for fixing it”.
In 2010/11, 3.6 million children lived in relative poverty in the UK (after housing costs). In 2018/19, this figure had risen to 4.2 million. By the end of this parliament, one in three children will have their childhoods and their futures undermined due to living in a family that has too little.
But surely they, too, can pull themselves up by their bootstraps? They are certainly experiencing “stuff” happening, so where are their reserves of those precious commodities – resilience and grit? Surprisingly, perhaps, both are there, in abundance, but decades of research tell us that neither can be mined without material and psychological support and an education system that first does no harm. Bouncing back is not just a matter of character.
In the 1940s, resilience was viewed as a gift of genes, a mix of birthright and bravado. It was personified in the character of the American postwar test pilot Chuck Yeager in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Then came a longitudinal study by a team that included clinical psychologist Professor Ann S Masten. She calls resilience “ordinary magic”, since it is potentially in every child, even those facing extreme adversity. However, it also requires other ingredients in the mix. Children manage adversity better when they have positive relationships with responsible adults, have confidence in their own abilities and these are valued by others. The power of a child’s mindset can rocket boost a life.
Professor Carol Dweck has spent years investigating how the stories we are told when young can dictate a life course. It you are treated as dumb, there’s no point in trying. But, equally, Dweck discovered that the brightest don’t push themselves as far as they might for fear of failing and losing their status as “the clever ones”. When she told “dumb” children that their brain was like a muscle that could be developed, and taught them how, they blossomed.
Other studies show that a sense of belonging, a belief that what you do matters, that you possess assets, all add to the toolbox. Resilience can be fostered in the home but not if adversity is great or, conversely, a child is never allowed to learn from failure, to experience disappointment or delayed gratification. It can develop, too, in the wider world. Some teachers are superb; others let their pupils know from an early age that they are a waste of space in an education system stuck in the past.
Tragically, over the past decade, long before the advent of Covid-19, opportunities for young people to acquire self-belief and social skills had shrunk. Youth clubs had closed, recreation grounds been sold off, seven-year apprenticeships erased, vocational education (promised a revamp in a government white paper last week) never given status because of snobbery towards those who are “good with their hands”.
In short, across the UK, the roots of resilience were rotting away long before the pandemic. Still, there are heroes, including parents, determined to salvage what they can. Candice James, for instance, manages the Loughborough community centre at Max Roach in south London, in one of the most deprived areas in the country. She is a one-woman resilience builder. But why does it have to be so hard?
The Observer is rightly calling for an independent commission on how to minimise the pandemic’s long-term impact on this generation of children and young people. The proposal has the support of a range of professionals, including Anne Longfield. However, as Carolyn Curtis of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation has pointed out, commissions can tinker with the system instead of proposing a set of radical alternatives.
A new social contract, shaped by young people, is needed for a post-pandemic future. So much of what is now highly visible, and accelerating, has been a long time in the making – but it can be fixed. It just takes grit.