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The orchid and the dandelion

I popped into the bookshop the other (ostensibly to buy a book for Wombat Girl's upcoming birthday). Upon finding that the book I wanted to buy for her isn't going to be released until August 2015 (really?), I gave up and bought myself a little something instead (because I'm a great mum like that!).

The book I bought was Unnatural Selection - Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth by Australian cultural commentator Mark Roeder. In it, Mark argues that in an increasingly manmade world, physical strength, social ability and strong genes are no longer traits which take people to the top. Instead, people who have great lateral thinking, multitasking ability and a way of thinking outside the square are the worlds success stories (think Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates - the geeks). I thought it was a very interesting concept.

In chapter two, he explains Dandelions and Orchids, a totally new concept for me. In 2005, Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce published a research paper called "Biological Sensitivity to Context" in Development and Psychopathology. They found that most kids are relatively robust and tend to survive in nearly all types of situation - they are resilient. They named these children "dandelions" after the hardy flower that grows just about anywhere.

But they also observed a smaller group of children who were much more sensitive to their environment, and when neglected or mistreated, soon withered because they couldn't cope. They called these kids "orchid children."

However, in a surprise finding, they also discovered that when these orchid children were nurtured, they not only survived, they thrived and often outperformed the dandelion children. Their heightened sensitivity to their environment enabled them to see things differently, and to respond more creatively to opportunities. In the author's language, these children become "a flower of unusual delicacy and beauty."

Now as if this discovery wasn't exciting enough, scientists are finding that children with a certain variation of the CHRM2 and DRD4 genes (the ones implicated in alcohol dependency and ADHD, amongst other things) and maybe up to a dozen other genes, will behave in a way consistent with the orchid child model of susceptibility - if they receive negligent parenting, they will exhibit negative behaviour, but if they receive positive and attentive parenting, they exhibit desirable teenage behaviour. The kids who ran the highest risk of turning into delinquents from dodgy parenting are the very ones that are least likely to struggle in healthy and positive homes. It seems there is a link between nature and nurture - and our early experiences set up our stress responses for the rest of our lives.

What does this mean for sensitive adults? Work from Jadzia Jagiellowicz published in Social and Affective Neuroscience (2010) found that highly sensitive people are capable of doing a lot more with information placed in front of them - they can go deeper, give attention to detail and see more than less sensitive people.

These ideas totally change the way we think about human frailty and vulnerability. Can the kids most at risk of "failure" actually be the kids with the most potential?

I can totally see my sensitive boy, put in the wrong environment, falling apart - an orchid being crushed (in fact, I have seen it). He is so not a dandelion! I was told I was spoiling him, protecting him from the "real world" by choosing to homeschool him, and that I needed to "toughen him up". I always felt that somehow, his not being particularly resilient was my fault.

Having read what I've read this week, I'm even more glad I listened to my gut and not those people. I brought him home, gave him warmth, love, support and direction, and now I can see him start to blossom. I can see the potential that so many others could not. I no longer only see liabilities (which the school system did), I see gifts - I see hope.


  1. Hmmmm. I'm thinking I might need to read that book.

  2. Fascinating! But now I'm thinking about orchards and dandelions and where my kids fit. I mean will I ever know as when 'sapling's' they were firmly nurtured, so would they be orchards or dandelions without the nurturing, not sure I'm making sense.

    1. Yeah, but if they ARE orchids, then all that nurturing will lead them into wonderful, fulfilling lives!

  3. A gorgeous and (as always) insightful post, Ingrid…just beautiful. I think we might be a house full of orchids. I adore orchids. So thankful we get to flourish together! So thankful the same is happening in your home too. Love.

    1. Love to you too, Helena and your house full of orchids!

  4. Very moving, Ingi. I love this post.

    1. Thanks Deb. It helped me view the world differently.

  5. I agree, you've put this so well. I've heard about dandelions and orchids before but I'm glad you've made me think of it anew. My son is also an orchid and I am so appreciative that I've had the chance to nurture him at home. And I'm increasingly appreciative of my own sensitivity as the years go by, despite having spent my childhood to toughen up!
    You made me giggle about the bookshop experience, too. I relate!

    1. Oops, I meant to say, "I'm increasingly appreciative of my own sensitivity as the years go by, despite having spent my childhood being told to toughen up!"

  6. Hurray for the orchids, and to those willing to nurture their sensitive needs. Hurray for the resilient dandelions, too. Goodness knows, they can thrive and grow splendidly in an orchid environment, too :)

    I'm new to this concept, but I like it. Great post, Ingi!


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