Children can be divided into two distinct personality types, “dandelions” and “orchids,” suggests Dr. Thomas Boyce, an emeritus professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
Comprising around four fifths of children, dandelions are typically hardy, resilient, and healthy, and can thrive in most environments. In contrast orchids are susceptible and fragile and extremely sensitive to their environments, and have a tough time dealing with stressful situations.
Boyce reports he’s a dandelion, while his sister, who had mental health issues, was an orchid. How could two siblings who grew up in the same comfortable, safe environment with loving parents end up with such different life outcomes he wondered? Could it be that, “a single, seemingly unerring environment is in fact not the same for each individual child.”
The results of his research were published in his fascinating book, “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive”.
To examine differences between orchids and dandelions, he looked at children’s cortisol and fight-or-flight stress responses, and found that orchid children showed much greater stress responses than dandelions, equally among boys and girls, and had higher rates of illness and behavior issues.
And most startling, he discovered orchid children either foundered in bad environments or thrived in good environments because, “they were more open, more permeable, more tender to the powerful influences, both bad and good, of the contexts in which they were living and growing.”
“Like their namesake flowers,” he writes, “they (orchids) are both endowed and burdened with an exquisite sensitivity to the inhabited, living world, and, also like the orchid, have both frailties that can threaten their existence and health, as well as hidden capacities for lives of beauty, honesty, and notable achievement.”
Working with troubled children in child-development research for almost four decades, he found certain variant genes can increase a person’s susceptibility to depression, anxiety, ADHD, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors. With the right setting and nurturing environment, these children can not only do better than before, but far exceed their peers.
Boyce’s study of 137 public school kindergartners in Berkeley in the late 1980s identified which kids were highly reactive to stressors in the lab, at school and at home. He found that those who tested high for reactivity (with increased levels of cortisol as part of the fight-or-flight mechanism) also had a higher incidence of respiratory illnesses and psychological disorders like anxiety, increasing their potential for depression, anti-social behavior and more.
Three decades later, Boyce and his team tracked down and interviewed a representative eight of those kids — both orchids and dandelions whom he had studied when they were 4 or 5 years old — to learn how their lives had turned out. The results were intriguing, and bolstered his theory.
Boyce offers six personal tips for parents and teachers dealing with orchid children: (1) Understand they have a sensitivity to whatever is new or unexpected and prefer routines. (2) Give them steadfast attentiveness and love. (Boyce debunks the value of occasional “quality time.”) (3) Recognize and honor human differences (your child may be different from you and your other kids, and may be inclined toward a different path, like art). (4) Accept and affirm the child’s “true creative self.” (5) Find a balance between being protective and encouraging the child to venture into the unknown. (6) Embrace the “great virtues of play, fantasy, and imaginative fun.”
Among the strategies Boyce recommends for parents of orchid children are giving them stability and reliable routines and affirming their “true, tenderhearted, and creative self” with a lot of attentiveness, support, and love.
“Though orchids may sometimes appear weak or inconsequential within the buzzing, feverish activity of family life,” he writes, “they always have an array of gifts and potencies of great significance and advantage. Parents can uncover and reveal those gifts in their interactions with their children, in the ways they refer to and describe their children, and in the trust they place in each of their children’s individual competencies.”