Is your child a dandelion or an orchid? Dandelions will flourish in any conditions. Orchids must have sensitive care or they'll die – but with the right care, they'll bloom magnificently. A new theory says children are the same way.
by Bethany Young Hardy
The journey of parenting children is filled with struggles, from the Terrible Twos to the Teens. In most cases, moms and dads cope by clinging to the mantra, “This too shall pass.” But in some cases, the struggles don’t end, and parents worry that their child’s behavior is symptomatic of a larger problem.
A fascinating article in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Science of Success,” may provide relief in the form of a new psychiatric hypothesis that could reshape the way society views “difficult” children. The premise is that some kids are born with a certain genetic blueprint that means they can either fail severely or excel brilliantly in life—depending on how they are cared for.
As author David Dobbs explains, this new theory builds upon the “vulnerability hypothesis” of psychiatry, which holds that some versions of behavioral genes increase a person’s odds of developing “depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems—if, and only if, the person carrying the [gene] variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.”
But just as the vulnerability hypothesis shows how these types of people are at high risk of failure, the new theory offers that they have an equally strong chance at remarkable success.
Orchids and dandelions
Dobbs explains: “Though this hypothesis is new to modern biological psychiatry, it can be found in folk wisdom, as the University of Arizona developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis and the University of British Columbia developmental pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce pointed out [in June 2008] in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
"The Swedes, Ellis and Boyce noted in an essay titled ‘Biological Sensitivity to Context,’ have long spoken of ‘dandelion’ children.
“These dandelion children—equivalent to our ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ children, with ‘resilient’ genes—do pretty well almost anywhere, whether raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or a well-tended garden. Ellis and Boyce offer that there are also ‘orchid’ children, who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.”
To illustrate, Dobbs relays the story of researcher Marian Bakermans-Kranenburg and her colleagues at Leiden University, who in 2004 conducted an experiment with 120 families with toddlers rated by their parents (and confirmed by researchers) as demonstrating exceptionally aggressive and uncooperative, or “externalizing,” behavior.
The researchers visited parents’ households six times in eight months, each time videotaping the mothers and children in typical interactions, and then provided “teachable moments” for the parents based on the observations. Meanwhile, they had no interaction with a control group of families of similarly aggressive children.
The result: increased success for the group that received the “teachable moments.” “A year after the intervention ended,” Dobbs writes, “the toddlers who’d received it had reduced their externalizing scores by more than 16 percent, while a nonintervention control group improved only about 10 percent (as expected, due to modest gains in self-control with age).
“And the mothers’ responses to their children became more positive and constructive.”
Bruce Ellis says that orchid children benefit more from parenting interventions like these, and that parents should be taught the importance of sensitivity and consistency. “Orchid children have been shown to especially benefit from family routines (i.e., a predictable family environment), sensitive parenting, and high quality childcare,” he adds.
Parents gazing in wonder at their new baby may want to know as soon as possible whether they’re cradling an orchid or a dandelion in their arms. Robert Marion, a medical geneticist at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, says that soon, thanks to genetic testing, parents will be able to know for sure shortly after a child is born.
“We will be able to screen the entire genome of babies, identifying mutations and polymorphisms in genes that make the individual susceptible to cancer, or diabetes, or hypertension, or any number of the chronic disorders that afflict children and adults…[including identifying] which babies are ‘dandelions’ and which are ‘orchids,’" he says.
However, Marion warns, ethical concerns cloud the question of whether to test, including the questions of who owns the information, who can access it, and whether parents have the right to make treatment decisions for their children.
While the issue of genetic testing remains unresolved, parents who are unsure whether they’re raising an orchid child may find comfort in gathering more information. And incorporating consistency and sensitive parenting techniques into the daily routine can be a positive experience regardless of a child’s genetic makeup.
The key is what we now know: by providing loving, tender care, parents can help their orchid children to bloom into the most magnificent flowers in the garden.
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Bethany Young Hardy is a mom, writer, and public relations consultant. Her experience includes political, nonprofit, and healthcare communications.