Back home in New York City, my own two children are privileged to attend a small private school. We receive some scholarship funds, and the remaining balance requires financial sacrifice, but it enables them to learn in an environment that promotes growth, for which I am grateful. At times, though, the PTA meetings have featured heated discussions about the school chef’s offerings or complaints about the school uniforms. I grew up attending public schools where your only choice at lunch was between white or chocolate milk.
In Detroit, I have seen leaking roofs, insufficient books and no computers. You know, real problems. I have also seen the mental toughness of the young people in east Detroit and north Philadelphia. I marvel at their quick minds and ability to create and re-create solutions.
This is different from what I observe among most students at the private school. In fact, as much as my heart aches sometimes for the circumstances in the vulnerable neighborhoods I work in, my heart also hurts for the privileged children whose lives are micromanaged. They are often clueless about how to solve problems, navigate the world independently or bounce back after failures — if they are ever allowed to fail. It would seem some of those with economic advantages are actually at a gross disadvantage in terms of character building, especially when you consider so many child development experts say grit, resilience and perseverance are critical traits in developing successful people. People of color and those from immigrant communities often have this scrappiness by nature or by necessity, putting some wealthier children behind, even when they think their academic accomplishments and credentials put them ahead.
I call this the disadvantage advantage.
In a recent phone interview, the Bronx-bred marketers lamented kids having their shoes tied for them, their homework done for them and parents Skyping into college interviews. “Parents in the U.S. are having Child Protective Services called on them for letting their children walk to school, while in Japan, there is a popular TV show called ‘My First Errand,’ designed to encourage kids to go out on their own,” says Koval, who is also the president and chief executive of the anti-smoking Truth Initiative.
“We are living the bad effects of helicopter parenting. Though fostered by our best intentions, it actually undermined the need for kids to develop their natural resilience,” Koval says. “Failure is a part of life; it’s not fatal.”
Parents need to take heed. In the increasingly competitive school and career landscape, personal character traits will become equally important as SAT scores and college credentials, if not more important. As president and chief executive of Smart City Kids, an educational consultant business in New York City, Roxana Reid sees this everyday.
“Most of my clients have children who are clearly very bright and ahead in the developmental curve,” Reid says. “However, the stuff I really pay attention to is their resiliency, stick-to-it-iveness, intellectual curiosity and an ability to push past frustrations. When those social and emotional factors don’t exist, their ability to succeed is hampered.”
In fact, Reid attributes her own success — building a multimillion-dollar business with clients including Goldman Sachs, New York University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center — to her immigrant upbringing. She moved to the United States from Panama when she was 11. “My mother left the known for the unknown. There’s a part of the immigrant story that’s about the ability to take risks and being willing to learn what you don’t know — and that’s an important skill for life.”
Reid says she sees many economically disadvantaged children succeed in high-pressure private school environments because they are not “shook easily.” They can overcome difficulties and often multitask better because they have to exercise those skills in their daily lives, Reid notes.
But there is a tipping point where the disadvantage advantage no longer applies. “Having to maintain that level of tenacity over an extended period of time, for years and years, is draining and very challenging,” Reid says, recalling many gifted low-income students whose grit maxed out before or during college.
“Challenges are great for people’s development and character when they can be overcome with effort, even if there’s some failure along the way,” says Greg Miller, a professor with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “But in today’s society, lower-income kids face persistent and structural obstacles, the kind that don’t lend themselves to ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ kinds of approaches.”
So what is the secret sauce?
“The sweet spot is one of a certain amount of adversity with some protective factors,” Thaler says. “For advantaged kids, that means creating opportunities for that resilience to be built. And for disadvantaged kids who may have that naturally, we have to make sure there are protections and buffers.”
Reid adds that parents are important role models for handling discomfort with the unknown and for taking risks and not giving up.
Koval recommends some easy, traditional approaches. “Make kids do chores, make their bed every day, let them do their own homework, and let them be responsible for their actions instead of being so quick to always defend them,” she says.
As an African American parent, I struggle. My children have access to some advantages, but I still want them to have a little Detroit, Philadelphia and real New York City tenacity about them, too. Giving them an educational advantage does not have to mean they are disconnected from their community and those who are less fortunate. I make sure they have volunteer opportunities and spend time with friends and relatives who do not have what they have. I show them examples on YouTube or Facebook of black youth who have pushed past obstacles, defied odds and displayed true creative genius. More important, I use current events as teachable moments. When President Trump spoke of “shithole” countries, we talked about what it means to define people only by economics and to incorrectly assume that having less means being less. That distinction often gets lost.
We must also do our part as a society. That means changing how we talk about inner cities and low-income communities. We almost always use a language of deficiency, calling them disadvantaged, under-resourced and under-everything else. That may be partly true by some metrics, but, like the president’s comments, it ignores all the richness those communities and their young people possess: the wealth of resiliency, tenacity and grit that can turn into greatness if properly cultivated.
Changing the language around these conversations will help foster a new realization: That vulnerable communities have formidable qualities. And perhaps economically advantaged kids of all colors should be taught they can learn something from the same low-income families that are receiving their donations of canned soup, unwanted toys or outgrown coats. Those kids are not just charity cases.
Maybe telling low-income children they have important abilities and desirable traits that wealthier kids covet and allowing them to teach and mentor those economically advantaged children could be one of the buffers that prevent the disadvantage advantage from reaching that tipping point. It is time to own and name the disadvantage advantage and leverage it on both sides of the equation.
Kimberly Seals Allers is a New York-based journalist and author who writes frequently about motherhood and parenting. A former writer at Fortune, she is the author of “The Big Letdown — How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding.” Follow her on Twitter @IamKSealsAllers.
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