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By 3-4 Years, a Resilient Child Should be Able to Fend for Itself

James Neill
Last updated:
28 Nov 2004

By 3-4 Years, a Resilient Child Should be Able to Fend for Itself

Aboriginal people practiced infanticide and left children as young as 3 years old to fend themselves.   As a result, children evolved to have the capacity to be surprisingly independent at young ages, although they are quite vulnerable during the first year.  Rapidly, however, between the ages of 1 and 3, a child blossoms in physical coordination, mental complexity, language and major basic skills of life.  It is no coincidence that it is around this age that most children begin formal education in Western societies.  In poorer societies, this is when many children begin to work and assume adult-like responsibilities.

What Does the Research Say?

Two-thirds of children in high risk families emerge as resilient

Some longitudinal studies, several of which follow individuals over the course of a lifespan, have consistently documented that between half and two-thirds of children growing up in families with mentally ill, alcoholic, abusive, or criminally involved parents or in poverty-stricken or war-torn communities do overcome the odds and turn a life trajectory of risk into one that manifests "resilience," the term used to describe a set of qualities that foster a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity.
(Bonnie, 1995)

Resilient toddlers are intelligent, autonomous, sociable, and androgynous

When they are toddlers, resilient children display an array of characteristics. Intelligence, autonomy, and sociability are present during the toddler years (Murphy and Moriarty, 1976; Werner and Smith, 1982). Their autonomy is tempered by adequate cooperation and compliance (Murphy and Moriarty, 1976). They are friendly, socially responsive, sensitive, and cooperative, with a positive sense of self (Garmezy, 1981; IMHI, 1991). They are also androgynous in that resilient toddler males have deeper affective expression, sociability, and demonstrativeness than non-resilient toddler males. Resilient toddler females are better coordinated, not as timid, and interested in environmental exploration; this makes them androgynous as well (Murphy and Moriarty, 1976; Werner and Smith, 1982).
(Ohio State University Extension, 1999)

10 Ways to Make Your Children More Resilience

  • Be empathetic.
  • Listen actively & Communicate effectively.
  • Change negative scripts.
  • Love children to help them feel special and appreciated.
  • Accept children for who they are & help them set realistic expectations and goals.
  • Help children to experience success by identifying and reinforcing their "islands of competence.
  • Help children recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn.
  • Develop responsibility, compassion and a social conscience by providing children with opportunities to contribute to society.
  • Teach children how to solve problems and make decisions.
  • Discipline in a way that promotes self-discipline and self-worth.
    (Adapted from Brooks & Goldstein, 2003)

Examples of Resilient Children

In order to illustrate the potential resilience of children at very young ages, anecdotal true stories are being collated.  These could be used for study and discussion.

Do you have a story which illustrates the remarkable resilience of children?

Girl, 5, saves baby from dingo in hotel

Fraser Island, Australia, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- A 5-year-old Australian girl who planted herself between her infant sister and a dingo that entered the family hotel room is being credited as a hero.

Belinda Corke told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., her daughter Georgia was alone in the room on Fraser Island with her 3-month-old sister Wednesday when the dingo came in through the slightly open patio doors.

The 5-year-old had to scream several times to alert her parents, and kept moving to keep herself between the wild dog and her sister on the bed, just two feet away.

"I heard my 5-year-old daughter starting to scream when I was in the bathroom," Corke said. "And then my husband sort of heard her shouting, 'Dingo! Dingo'!"

Corke said it took a while for her husband to shoo the dog out, but it eventually fled through the patio door.

Three years ago, a 9-year-old boy was mauled to death on the island by a pack of dingoes, a wolf-like wild dog that migrated from Southeast Asia millions of years ago.


Bonnie, B. (1995). Fostering resilience in children. ERIC Digest ED386327.

Brooks, R., & Goldstein, S. (2003). 10 ways to make your children more resilience. www.familytlc.net

Ohio State University Extension (1999). Fostering resilience in children. Bulletin 875-99.

Werner, E. E., and Smith, R. S. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: McGraw-Hill.