Why Hope Matters for Children and Families in Poverty

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Valerie Maholmes
By Valerie Maholmes Aug 07, 2017

One of my favorite things to do on a Sunday afternoon is to go downtown to one of the community gathering places and watch children play in the interactive water fountain.  I love to watch them run into the spouts and feel its force of energy as they splash around in the water.  The run, they fall down, they get back up.  When the fountain changes patterns and diminishes its force, the children giggling and jumping watch in hopeful anticipation of the water shooting up from the spout again. Not knowing when or where the next spray of water will be, the children look toward their parents or siblings for cues as to how to negotiate their next move.  As an onlooker, it's hard to discern the backgrounds of these children--who they are, where they live and the circumstances in which they experience childhood.  Rather, all that is evident is childhood.   While watching the children play, I began to think about the notion that some children, who despite experiencing adversity early in their lives grow up to overcome difficult circumstances.  I wondered about the factors that contributed to their success. I thought about people I know and families I’ve worked with who, despite humble beginnings, were managing their lives successfully. I also reflected on popular figures in the media whose biographies highlight the ways in which they overcame early adversity in their lives.  As I reflected on the stories of these individuals, it occurred to me that a common theme among them was hope. I began to see the various ways in which hope was a highly influential and motivating force in their lives. This kind of hope was not passive—it was not merely wishing for a better life, but was active. It involved thinking, planning, and acting on those thoughts and plans to achieve desired outcomes. It was the driving force that kept them moving despite the adversity and allowed them to adapt and cope in the midst of their circumstances. I'm not alone in this awareness.  Many of us have encountered individuals who have defied the statistics and the conventional wisdom that says if you live here, go to school there or have these parents that the likelihood of success for you is dim. 

The good news is that there is mounting evidence that cycles of poverty and disadvantage can be broken.  Studies now shed light on some of the processes involved in resilience and adaptation to adversity.  In my work, I have explored the role of hope as an important driving force for some families, and research has revealed important links between hopeful attitudes and well-being: a belief that one can achieve, a sense of belonging and knowing who you are, the ability to problem solve, set goals and work toward those goals and perhaps most importantly, a sense of purpose and meaning in life.  

In addition, children and families have assets and strengths that are best understood in the context of their immediate psychosocial ecology.  If cultivated, these assets can be immensely helpful in overcoming adversity.  It is often the case that families may not be aware of the assets they have, so strengths-based programs and intervention efforts that tap into these family assets may increase the likelihood that the ameliorative benefits of the programs will be sustained over longer periods of time.  Helping children and families develop asset maps that list the sources of their strengths is an important step in fostering hope.  These maps may include circles of prosocial friends.  Children who have friends at school, in the neighborhood where they reside and also in adjacent neighborhoods may find these assets essential for staying on course and avoiding negative peer influences.  The maps may also help identify "hidden" skills that might be transferable to other contexts.  For example, parents who are the neighborhood leaders or involved in various community activities have skills in problem-solving strategies, positive social interaction, help seeking behaviors, and advocacy.  These assets are among the active ingredients in hope and can be important touchstones for children to observe and to translate into their own strategies for achieving success in school and in relationships with peers.

Ongoing resources and support for education, mental health counseling, job readiness, and financial literacy are needed to keep families from slipping back into difficult patterns of behavior as they experience the inevitable setbacks in life.   It is also important to help families learn not to attribute a setback to a perceived lack of skill or ability. Instead, help them to identify other useful pathways, assets and sources of support that will keep them on track.

 

The promise of hope for ending the cycle of poverty resides in the well-being of our children.  All children, like those I observed playing in the interactive fountain need support to overcome challenges of the forceful waters of life.  When they come to our classrooms, our clinics, or health centers we may not know all of the complex details of their lives but we do know that they look to us with hopeful expectation that we will help them navigate successfully through the unpredictable high and low waters of childhood.

 

©2017 Momentous Institute

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