by Judge Dennis Challeen
It’s only natural that parents want to protect their children from difficult circumstances while they are growing up, and to prepare them for conflicts and competition in the adult world. However, there are some studies that reveal many successful adults had difficult childhoods. Not just a singular event, but an on-going home life of neglect, poverty, serious illness, sexual and physical abuse, addiction and mental illness, and possibly the death of a parent.
Success does not necessarily mean financial well-being, but also can indicate a general contribution to a better society. One example would be Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine that has nearly eradicated polio from our planet, affecting millions of lives. He never became rich, because he never bothered to obtain a patent, which at that time (1955) had an estimated worth of $7 billion.
A few examples of people who rose above childhood hardships are Abraham Lincoln (his mother died when he was nine, he lived in poverty, his father was a drifter, and he had only 18 months of formal education), Henry Ford (who left home at 16), John D. Rockefeller (his father was absent, but he began his own business at 14), Eleanor Roosevelt (she lost both her mother and father by the age of 10), Oprah Winfrey (endured childhood sexual abuse), and Louis Armstrong (dealt with poverty and was abandoned by his father).
One study by psychologists Victor and Mildred Goertzel in 1962 showed that of 400 “famous men and women” who had made a positive contribution to society, only 15 percent had been raised in normal, untroubled homes; what was almost unbelievable was 300 of the 400 (75 percent) had been raised in families that were burdened by severe problems. A recent book by Dr. Meg Jay (“The Untold Story of Adversity and Resilience”) reinforces these studies. The psychologists’ explanation for this phenomenon is that children trapped within the confines of a dysfunctional home life must learn to cope with the family’s problems and learn survival skills that become useful in their adult life. Does this mean we should make life miserable for our children? Of course not, but when “helicopter parents” run interference, rescue, and make excuses for and take over their children’s problems, they are not doing them any favors.
Sometimes parents teach the wrong lessons, such as total denial; excuse making; lying; avoiding responsibility; and dishonesty when dealing with authorities such as police, courts and school administrators. They pass onto their children irresponsible coping skills that harm rather than help their children. The old saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” applies. They create high-risk children heading for future problems such as criminality, unwanted pregnancy and unemployment.
Fortunately, about a third of these children from troubled homes do not replicate their parents’ troubled homes. They seek and find supportive spouses and build families vastly different from what they experienced as children; they become confident, competent, caring adults, and they become determined, resilient survivors who don’t let problems rule their lives. If knocked down, they pick themselves up and find a way to start all over again. They refuse to accept failure — they don’t give up. They develop an “I can overcome whatever comes my way” attitude. “When times get tough, the tough get tougher.” They believe in themselves and don’t let others put them down and define them in negative terms.
When I was a judge we often had children in court who were living in dysfunctional homes. Through the years I would meet them as adults in super markets, gas stations, restaurants and other business places. They would approach me and ask if I remembered them. Often, I didn’t recognize them, as they had become changed adults, but they almost all wanted to relate their achievements, and were proud of their families they had put together. They had somehow overcome their unfortunate childhoods.
Not all were so fortunate. I likewise have often read the local newspapers and recognized their names for convictions of crimes; early tragic deaths from reckless living, repeating the errors of their childhood upbringing.
The psychologists explain there is no easy answer as to why some make this transition and others fail. In simple terms, it is developing the determined will to overcome adversity; some children have it; others don’t. Resilience is not a single response but an ongoing life-long phenomenon.
Being involved in sports or learning the challenge of playing a musical instrument or any other competition outside the home can be an indicator of whether the child is learning these survival skills. Competitions teach a youngster: “Although I may lose today, I can win tomorrow.”
Michael Jordan, considered one of the world’s greatest basketball players, sums it up this way: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game-winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.”