The Swedes have long had a name for children who bloom where they’re planted – whether in well-tended garden or a sidewalk crack – “dandelion children”.  Thomas Boyd, a University of Arizona developmental psychologist and Bruce Ellis, a developmental pediatrician from the University of British Columbia have added “orchid children” – those that flourish under the right conditions but wilt under the wrong ones, as described in Orchids and Dandelions Abloom by David Dobbs of Wired Magazine.

Are you a dandelion or an orchid?  Are you born that way, or do you become one over time?

One of most intriguing developments in the nature/nurture debate is the discovery that while we may possess certain genes, they need to be “switched on”, or activated by the environment to become functional.  This is described as gene-environment interaction.  Scientists have identified a dozen or so of these genes that affect either brain development itself or its neurotransmitters, and individuals with variants of these genes are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, ADHD, increased risk taking or poor impulse control (the vulnerability-gene hypothesis)   If you don’t win the cortical lottery, you have the “risk” version of these genes and if life deals you a blow, you are more vulnerable to develop the disorders.

But a new perspective is emerging. We’ve been focused on the potential downside of our genetic allocation, and failed to note that the upside is also true.  People with the “risk” gene variant have equal potential for outstanding performance under favourable conditions.  The same genetic material can produce a criminal or one of society’s most creative, successful contributors.  Why?   Because it seems the gene variant directs a heightened sensitivity to all experience, positive or negative.

This is intriguing and exciting, and also makes sense. Pediatrician W. Thomas Boyce, who has conducted more than three decades of child-development research, says the orchid hypothesis “profoundly recasts the way we think about human frailty.” He adds, “We see that when kids with this kind of vulnerability are put in the right setting, they don’t merely do better than before, they do the best—even better, that is, than their protective-allele [non orchid] peers.”

If you’re an orchid yourself, or have orchid children, take heart.  Those meltdowns?  They’re the downside.  The upside is that interventions like cognitive reframing, meditation, pausing to reflect, deep breathing and regular exercise will be more effective for the orchids in your life than for the average Joe or dandelion.

More at risk, or more plastic? Crippling or liberating?  It’s all in your perspective.


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