In this season of COVID and demonstrations, I have been struck by the continual insistence on treating people as victims of “the system.” I first encountered this philosophy when I was in law school, where I learned about Critical Race Theory. I found it be a faith-based ideology rather an evidence-based approach to solving problems. It is the secular equivalent of original sin, except without any possibility of redemption. In the years since, I have never seen any facts that have changed my mind. Fortunately, this blog is not about my philosophy, but my experiences working with traumatized children. Of course our society has very real problems, as anyone who works with children well know. Trying to solve these problems with victim ideology, however, has been devastating for many of the children I have tried to help.
I have lost count of the times that I have heard my foster children explain something along the lines of, “I have been [abused, homeless, discriminated against]. The system is stacked against me, and I will never get a fair break. So what’s the point?” I can’t disagree with their logic. If “the system” will always treat them badly because of their experiences, orientation, or ethnicity, then what is the point in their trying to move forward? If our children are merely the sum of their trauma, then all we can do is warehouse them until we get tired and give up. That is a very bleak future.
I had these thoughts in mind when I ran across this recent article about children living amidst armed conflicts and political violence. The authors looked at almost 700 studies of children living in those circumstances. They pointed out that one key factor in resilience is the concept of agency, specifically how children “activate the resources in their environment” to overcome their circumstances. The overview identifies numerous sources of agency, including religious beliefs, education, sports leagues, and civic engagement. Many of those resources may be available to our children, if we can help them find a path to them.
I was particularly struck, though, by the authors’ condemnation of the Western view of children as passive victims. For example, according to one study they reviewed, “the term ‘trauma’ did not exist in Rwanda until the arrival of foreign aid and international nongovernmental organizations after the genocide.” The overview concluded that, until we move past focusing only on children’s vulnerability, we will not be able to help them develop agency and resilience.
I do not intend to downplay the very real suffering of our children. Of course living with violence or abuse or discrimination causes very deep scars, and we need to change many things in our society. But they are not only victims. Their trauma always will be part of their past, but it does not limit what they can accomplish. It does not help my children in the slightest when well-meaning, rich, and accomplished professors, celebrities, or leaders look down from the heights, declare them to be victims, and then move on to the next shiny new idea. Any philosophy that leaves people mired in their current circumstances is useless and destructive.
We have to show our children that they can take control of their destiny and how they can do it. Sometimes it may be a simple thing. “I’m sorry you suffered all of that, but you still have to take out the trash.” Other goals may be harder. “You need to graduate from high school and find a field you enjoy working in.” Whatever the situation, we cannot think of them, or let them think of themselves, only as victims. Their trauma may be ever-present, but it does not define them. Any philosophy that says otherwise is not one that we can accept.