For Children to Beat the Odds and Overcome Poverty, We Need to Develop Their Agency

kids playing

It’s no secret that growing up poor can put you at a disadvantage in many ways. Low-income families don’t have as many options when it comes to where they live. Their children could grow up in neighborhoods that are generally considered unsafe. They might not have access to good schools. Without knowing it, they might live in food deserts, a bad omen for their long-term nutrition.

And that’s just the beginning of the story. Covid-19 makes things worse. Distance education is only feasible for families that have a reliable high-speed internet connection. Remote work is compatible with knowledge-based jobs that often require higher education. And staying healthy while keeping indoors now requires a good air purifier to go with your HVAC system.

Cumulative advantages work the other way, while those of lesser means get left behind. Yet some kids can buck the trend. Coming from a poor background, they can succeed despite those circumstances.

A common factor

Every tale of success is a different story. While we all face obstacles to our goals, how we approach and overcome them will vary. And children who manage to beat the odds of poverty will all have a unique combination of factors contributing to their exceptional narrative.

But there’s one consistent thread running through all these stories. According to a 2018 study, children who displayed such so-called ‘positive deviance’ did not see themselves as passive victims of their backgrounds. Instead, they possessed a strong sense of agency.

Combined with their awareness of their family’s circumstances, this quality drove them to work hard and find creative ways to work with and eventually overcome financial constraints. It’s a useful lesson because although many poor households face variables they can’t control, agency can be cultivated.

The matter of agency

kids playing with parentsPersonal agency is the ability to make your own choices and make decisions that have an impact on your life. It also involves the awareness that you can influence your direction and initiate change.

Children who have a sense of agency are empowered to take effective and meaningful action. These qualities tend to serve them well in a leadership role. But agency also helps people in many other ways.

Our modern lives tend to be filled with stress and anxiety. These stem from the feeling that we’re overwhelmed by things we can’t control. We give too much weight to the opinions of others as to what we need to be doing, milestones we have achieved, things we ought to have in our lives.

Agency is our secret weapon for fighting off those effects. It helps us to realize that we aren’t defined by uncontrollable circumstances, but by what we do in response. And that’s especially potent for someone who has to grow up poor.

Developing agency

Some kids have a naturally higher sense of agency than others. But it’s a quality that can be cultivated in all children, even from an early age.

You can help foster a child’s sense of agency through a stronger bond of trust. That involves listening with respect and giving them a choice in different matters. For instance, they can choose what bedtime story you’ll read, or what food you’ll be cooking for dinner. These choices might be simple, even inconsequential, from an adult perspective. But they teach a child that they can influence things and outcomes.

Another way to promote agency is through the use of open-ended questions. These serve as prompts for self-reflection and growing awareness. Children will come to assert themselves more as they understand their interests and motivations.

Managing risk through play

Of course, there are limits to how much autonomy we allow children to have. You don’t just let a kid point and at whatever they want in a toy store. That only risks disappointment if they choose something you don’t buy, or spoiling them if you indulge every whim.

Instead, agency in children is best developed in a controlled environment. They should be free to choose from a limited set of options and won’t cause them harm or lead to unexpected outcomes.

Playtime is the perfect opportunity for this development to take place. It lets children make mistakes and learn under the supervision of adults. By paying close attention to a child’s play, you can gradually expand their horizons and allow them to push against barriers imposed by adults. It teaches them that they can act with agency and become increasingly empowered as they age.

Overcoming poverty should never be entirely the burden of the people and families involved. They need all the help they can get from authorities and institutions. But one thing everyone can control is imparting agency to their children and helping them beat the odds time and again.

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