Psychological studies suggest that for disadvantaged children – with disadvantages ranging from social perceptions of race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, family structure, etc. – resilience, or “grit,” is one of the most important factors in determining their success in overcoming social, personal, and financial obstacles. The knowledge that there are traits that can increase a child’s chance to rise above poverty, overcome adversity, and navigate other obstacles is in some ways encouraging – it provides hope that there are ways a child can succeed even when the odds are not in their favor.

On the other hand, defining resilience as a key character trait for success is dangerous. People may take to the idea that resilience equals effort: if you work hard enough, you succeed. This misinterpretation of what resilience is and what the finding means could result in less assistance to disadvantaged neighborhoods or at-risk children. People might think that the relative lack of success for some children is because they weren’t tough enough, or didn’t try hard enough. This perspective negates research proving that certain groups face challenges that other groups do not, and that these challenges present barriers to success that are extremely different to overcome.

The implications for these findings are unclear – promoting grit and resilience at the semantic level, without context, could prove dangerous and disadvantageous for those who need the characteristic most. The problem is that many obstacles to disadvantaged groups are systemic, engrained in bias and historically institutionalized. For children growing up in schools, communities, and systems with preconceived ideas of their potential, it may take a lot more resilience to overcome stereotypes and societal expectations than is reasonably expected from one individual. In a world where the answer might be changing the entire system, is “grit” worth promoting at the individual level?

Where do you stand on this?