Is Your Child a Dandelion or an Orchid?

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An article in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic poses a fascinating scientific question: do some children's genes give them a greater risk of failure, but also a greater chance for success, if they're raised under the right circumstances? Such children are dubbed "orchid children" David Dobbs's piece The Science of Success. The comparison is to a Swedish folk saying about "dandelion children" who will thrive anywhere (although, yes, good parenting helps them too -- just not as much). Dobbs details current research into biology and evolution which suggests that a percentage of the population (for humans and other species) are "orchids," who require careful parental attention during early development -- without this attention, they suffer and fail, but with careful nurturing, they succeed spectacularly, like orchids in a greenhouse.

Read the article for an excellent bit of science writing that's directly applicable to parenting. I have quoted a few key quotes from the article below (emphasis added):

... [R]esearchers have identified a dozen-odd gene variants that can increase a person's susceptibility to 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 variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.

... This new model suggests that it's a mistake to understand these "risk" genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

... Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.

("White Moth" orchid photo courtesy of Flickr user phocks and used under Creative Commons license; dandelion photo by Chris Higgins.)

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January 5, 2010 - 9:03am
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