Innovation/Global Risk 

 Resilience: The Case of the Romanian Orphans    

By Shlomo Maital   





In 1990 the world was shocked to see TV images of Romanian orphans.  The mad dictator Nikolai Ceasescu demanded that his people have at least 5 babies.  But increasing poverty meant many Romanians could not afford to keep them. They were put into horrendous orphanages.  Ceasescu was deposed after 24 awful years in power, in Dec. 1989.  He and his wife were executed.  But the orphanages remained full of helpless babies and infants, whose caregivers had no means to care for them properly, with one caregiver often caring for 30 children.  [I chose one of the least horrendous photos, believe me!].

   Childless British parents came to Romania and adopted several hundred of the babies.  Their developmental deficits were enormous.  Cindy and Anthony Calvert were the very first British couple to travel to Romania to adopt a child, from an orphanage in Kluge, Transylvania.  [Their story is featured on BBC]. They could not believe what they saw. The children lay in filth. They had no stimulation. Some could not even stand, as they were kept in their cribs all day and all night.  And the Kluge Orphanage was far from the worst.  After an enormous struggle, eventually they did manage to bring a child, Adi, age 18 months, home to England.  Adi chose them with her huge smile, despite everything.

   Renowned psychiatrist Sir Michael Rutter has studied these children for 22 years. He returns every two years or so to study their progress.   He found initially that many were two to three standard deviations from the developmental norm, in terms of both cognitive abilities and physical abilities and growth.  These huge deficits should have implied that all the children were doomed to lives of retardation, illness and suffering.

    This was not the case.  Children, it emerges, are incredibly resilient.  They can make up developmental deficits with alacrity.  The longitudinal study by Rutter and others found that as much as two-thirds to three-fourths of the Romanian adopted children are perfectly normal.

   Adi, for instance, is a beautiful 22-year-old young woman, aiming at a career in the performing arts. 

    Resilience, in psychology,  is a person’s individual’s ability to cope with stress and adversity, and bouncing back to a previous state of normal functioning after trauma.  “Resilience is most commonly understood as a process, and not a trait of an individual”, psychologists note.   

       Rutter’s famous article in Child Development [Child Development

 73, Issue 1, pages 1–21, January/February 2002] offers much room for optimism.  It also demands that society devote greater resources to rescuing children at risk, because a) they are worth it, b) it is never too late, and c) the earlier the children are placed in normal environments, the more likely it is their resilience will succeed.

   I once surveyed a group of microprocessor engineers, and asked them what was the #1 most important factor in their creativity?   Resilience, they said, hands down.  Creativity is always a difficult process, with many setbacks.  The ability to bounce back and continue, persist and succeed is an acquired skill.  Since Rutter finds that all children are resilient, it must mean that along the way, not only to adults lose their creativity but they also seem to lose much of their resilience.

  The lesson for innovators is:  Work not only on your creativity muscles, but also work on your bounce-back resilience muscles, the quality of character that enables you to fight through setbacks and difficulties toward ultimate success. 

    Remember the Romanian orphans.  If they can do it, so can you.