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Is your child an orchid or a dandelion?

Everyone is different. This is true throughout life, but it’s especially important to remember about kids. Children are still developing. Their brains are still making neural connections, their bodies are still trying to figure out how to deal with viruses and bacteria, and on the emotional level, they’re still learning good coping mechanisms.

There’s a lot going on inside a child’s body, and to make sense of it, one pediatric specialist suggests we think of them as flowers.

W. Thomas Boyce, a professor of pediatrics and psychiatry and chief of the division of behavioral pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, believes children lean toward one of two tendencies: They are hardy dandelions who can thrive under nearly every circumstance or they are sensitive orchids who need special care and environments but can also thrive if they are tended in the right way.

The qualities of flowers

Boyce outlines his theory in a book published earlier this year, “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.” The book is informed by two defining points in Boyce’s life. The first is the many instances during his time as a pediatrician when parents would tell him all the kids were doing well — except for that one child who was struggling. The second is his relationship with his sister, a woman who committed suicide by overdosing on drugs in her mid-50s after years of mental health problems. She was what he would call an orchid.

These tendencies are important to Boyce’s theory. Boyce doesn’t place children into exclusive buckets. Rather, the dandelion and orchid exist on opposite ends of a continuum. (Boyce identifies himself as a dandelion with orchid-y tendencies.) Some people fall closer to one end or another, while others exist somewhere in between, which means there’s some overlap between orchids and dandelions. This is significant because it means kids will respond to specific circumstances in different ways.

Three children collect dandelions Dandelion children can thrive under just about kind of circumstance. (Photo: Lipatova Maryna/Shutterstock)

Boyce defines dandelion children as those who “show a remarkable capacity for thriving in almost every environmental circumstance they encounter,” like their namesake flower, which can grow in meadows or cracks on a highway, pretty much anywhere there’s a bit of soil. Orchid children, however, are “sensitive to their environments, especially vulnerable under conditions of adversity but unusually vital, creative and successful within supportive environments.” Orchids are known for their beauty, their fragile nature and exacting environmental standards.

“While some [children] are powerfully affected by trauma, others are able to effectively weather adverse experiences, sustaining few, if any, developmental or health consequences,” Boyce writes. “People tend to view these differences in susceptibility as attributable to an inherent vulnerability or resilience, imagining that some small number of resilient or ‘unbreakable’ children have a special capacity to thrive, even in the face of severe adversity.

“Our research suggests instead that such variance is attributable not to innate traits but to differences in children’s relative biological susceptibility to the social contexts in which they live and grow, both the negative and the positive.”

Genes and the environment

A young girls hides behind an orchid Orchid children value routines and caregiver attention. (Photo: conrado/Shutterstock)

What this means is that cultivating an orchid or a dandelion is a matter of genetics and environment, or, in the common parlance, nature and nurture. “Genes alone do not make a child an orchid or a dandelion,” Boyce says. Instead, “the genetic characteristics of children create their predispositions, but do not necessarily determine their outcomes.”

Various studies support this claim. One, conducted by a team Boyce led, looked at Apgar scores of newborns and their development later in life. With a score from 0 to 10, Apgar is a test conducted on newborns to check their “Appearance (the pink or blue color of the body, hands, and feet); Pulse rate; Grimace (the crying or grimacing response to nasal or oral suction, or other stimulation); Activity (the degree and vigor of muscle flexion); and Respiration.” Those who score below a seven on the test may need additional assistance as newborns.

In a study with 34,000 children, Boyce’s team found that “Apgar scores were predictive of teacher-reported developmental vulnerability at age 5 for a variety of developmental dimensions,” including an ability to follow the rules, to focus, whether or not the child had an interest in reading and so on. In short, lower Apgar scores were indicative of a child’s ability to handle stress later in life, indicating whether or not they were dandelions or orchids practically as soon they were born.

A young close closes her eyes and smells yellow dandelions In many children, there’s overlap between traits. Dandelions can have orchid tendencies and vice versa. (Photo: Yuliya Evstratenko/Shutterstock)

Another, smaller study included 137 public school kindergartners in the 1980s. Boyce’s team evaluated the children’s ability to adapt to stress in a lab, at home and at school. Those who were stressed more easily had higher incidences of respiratory illness and more instances of anxiety and depression. Decades later, Boyce interviewed eight of these students — dandelions and orchids both — to see how their lives had progressed, and the results bolstered Boyce’s developmental theories.

The environment comes into play with how bodies react to it, according to Boyce. “For example, the body of a child encountering a major early life stressor, like maltreatment, might automatically adjust the functioning of many different cell types in order to adapt as well as possible to the experience.” This could involve dampening emotional responses or adjusting fight-or-flight impulses. The genes respond to the environment of its host.

And since all environments are different, children react differently, depending on their experiences and their genes, hence Boyce’s point about dandelions and orchids being on a continuum.

Helping orchids

Boy in a pastel plaid shirt waters a potted orchid Orchids, both the plants and the children, need special care if they are to thrive. (Photo: Vasyl Rohan/Shutterstock)

Boyce and his sister were best friends during childhood, but her struggles as an orchid kept her from succeeding and coping with her mental health ailments. He explains that his parents did what they could but that they couldn’t fully help Boyce’s sister because of how they were raised.

“We are the clay our parents sculpt,” he writes, “who are, in turn, themselves clay, shaped by life before we entered the world. But this clay-like malleability also penetrates into the cellular heart of our genes, which are remarkably open to inheriting surprising sensitivities.”

To that end, Boyce hopes his research can help parents, teachers and caregivers of orchids, specifically with six recommendations:

1. Understand the comfort of the routine. Orchids may not respond well to new things, and routines can help them establish a sense of control over and trust of the world.

2. Provide plenty of parental love and attention. Boyce doesn’t think occasional bits of quality time are enough for orchids. The love, like routines, needs to be ever-present and steadfast.

3. Recognize differences in others. Since orchids need a bit more extra care, they may have different traits or skills. Be aware of that.

4. Accept and affirm them. Along the lines of the third recommendation, provide space for those differences, like making room for creative pursuits and rewarding them.

5. Balance protection and encouragement. It’s easy to do too much sheltering or too much pushing into the deep end, but if an orchid child is to thrive, it must have both escape plans from stress activities and exposure to the world to develop coping skills. This balance will shift, Boyce says, as the child matures.

6. Allow for play and fantasy. Providing ample time to play and daydream can afford orchids the chance to decompress and develop their skills.

Is your child an orchid or a dandelion?

‘The Orchid and the Dandelion’ by W. Thomas Boyce is part memoir and part child development theory about how kids react to circumstances, and how to help them.

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