There is no denying that developing a sense of personal responsibility in young people is significant. However, in order to develop resilience, it is important for individuals to also look outside themselves as a way of negotiating the world.
Research seems to indicate that young people are more likely to be resilient if they experience the sense of belonging to a wider community; accepting they are not the locus of the world they encounter, allows for a change in narrative. Sometimes putting in ‘110% effort’ and ‘really wanting it’ is not enough and sadly this is just how the world works. Sometimes ‘life gets in the way’ and things happen that are beyond our control but that doesn’t make us lesser people.
A focus on individual autonomy can suggest: ‘I am in control of my destiny’ with effort or desire being the differentiating factor between success and failure. It is easy to slip over from a narrative of having grit with regards to the things that are hard in life, into a language that implies that anyone can be anything if they just try.
This can potentially lead to a sense in which individuals may believe they have ultimate control over their own destiny and possibly further still into one that leads to a sense of aggrandisement. Neither of which are entirely positive places to be as it is a massive responsibility to put on anyone’s shoulders and simply isn’t the case. Situations and events beyond anyone’s control play an important part in forming one’s future and it is important that young people are prepared for this.
This is different from letting them be passively accepting of their situation, but in just the same way they are not entirely responsible for the setting they find themselves in currently neither will they be entirely responsible for one they find themselves in the future. Upbringing, socioeconomic status, the colour of their skin or their gender all have a role to play and cannot be approached with an attitude that leaves them feeling they have ultimate control and therefore responsibility for.
This can work in both positive and negative ways – obviously it is important to fight against injustice and discrimination but it is equally important to be grateful and thankful for the opportunities in life that those around you have afforded you. These things are not of ones own making.
In a recent study I came across those brought up within a context of ‘You can be anything you want to be’ appeared to be more susceptible to ‘fundamental attribution error‘ – attributing more of what happens to their own personality and character than to situational factors. For example, when asked: ‘Why you might give money to a homeless person?’. In this study, those who ‘could be anything they wanted to be’ was more likely to say that it was because they are a generous person. Whereas those brought up with greater emphasis placed upon a sense of community, were more likely to answer in terms of the need of the homeless man.
Their notion of autonomy had also become tied up with a measure of omnipotence with the same people believing they had greater control over things like the sex of their future children, their winning the lottery, or even avoiding cancer.
Their relationship with a sense of community seemed to be the differentiating factor with regards to avoiding fundamental attribution error. The more connected to the wider world and the community they as individuals are part of the easier it was for them to accept that not only do their lives impact on others, but it also works the other way around. We all have the potential to have a positive, helpful impact on the lives of others.
It is hubris to allow people to believe that all that they are, all that they have, and all that they will be, is all of their own making. Getting young people to appreciate they are able to have some really important influence over events, but not total control, is part of the ‘Goldilocks’ balance. It is really important to look for those Goldilocks moments in which a ‘just-right’ balance is achieved.
Rebecca Mace is a PhD student at University College London. She explores the adolescent use of social media.