Book: The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive
Author: W. Thomas Boyce, M.D.
Age Range: Adult nonfiction, especially relevant for parents and teachers
I found The Orchid and the Dandelion, by W. Thomas Boyce, to be an informative read. The premise of this adult nonfiction title is that there’s a normal distribution of kids in terms of sensitivity / reactivity to their environment. Boyce, a longtime researcher and professor of pediatrics and psychiatry, classifies the 20% who are most reactive as orchids and the rest as dandelions. His research, and that of others, suggests that the dandelions are relatively impervious to things that happen to them. They can thrive good or bad situations. They are resilient. They bounce back. The orchids on the other hand, can do extremely well when nurtured properly. They are “unusually vital, creative, and successful within supportive, nurturing environments.” But in the presence of adversity, they tend to do poorly. They get sick more often (especially respiratory illnesses) and can veer towards mental illness, anxiety, addiction, and other negative behaviors.
It’s not completely clear what causes orchids, but Boyce thinks there’s a strong genetic component and that it was selected for in evolution. The orchids were early warning systems when things were bad, and then high-achievers when things were stable, and both aspects were thus beneficial. He also thinks that there’s a strong epigenetic component – that how people genes end up expressing as orchids is affected by their environments, from natal to childhood. Boyce identifies the orchids primarily by testing kids’ stress responses (fight-or-flight and cortisol responses to challenges).
I found this book fascinating. It’s a challenging read, covering a lot of science, and definitely requires a high level of concentration from the reader. Boyce helps make it more accessible, however, by sharing his personal story of his orchid sister who failed to thrive and eventually committed suicide. He also shares lots of examples of actual (names changed) kids who he has treated, studied, or known over the years. Finally, he includes incisive little biographies of the people he works with over the years that humanize what could have been a dry recounting of research. Here's one example: “Growing up, he had been a rebellious, recalcitrant, and generally annoying adolescent, forever in trouble by virtue of his impulsivity and an intellect that well outstripped his school’s and family’s capacities for containing and challenging it.” (Page 108 of the ARC)
I did have a couple of issues with the book:
- Boyce says that 15-20% of kids have most of the health problems found within a population of children over time (and account for the majority of health care dollars spent). He also says that 20% of the population are orchids. Then he says that some of the orchids thrive and have unusually good health. So is it just coincidence that for each orchid that does thrive there’s a dandelion who for whatever reason does not, such that the percentages match up? This is not unreasonable, but I felt that this could have been addressed more directly. Perhaps it was, and I missed it.
- He’s somewhat absolute throughout much of the book about the orchid children vs. the dandelion children. However, this whole classification is based on a normal distribution of behavior. I kept thinking: wouldn’t it be more a spectrum, with some kids tending more towards orchids and some tending towards dandelions? He does state this about the spectrum clearly late in the book, and I get that he’s trying to make an already complex story more comprehensible, but as a person who understand variability, this bothered me as I was reading.
Those issues aside, I did find the book engaging thought-provoking. It made me think about my own development and my daughter’s, and about things that might help some of the people around me. I highlighted many passages and learned a variety of things. Here are a few of my (many) notes:
- When Boyce started studying the correlation between adversity and propensity toward childhood illness, he found that while childhood adversity was predictive, the associations were not nearly as strong as expected. This is the data from which he and others started to see that for some kids adversity wasn’t highly predictive of illness, but for other kids it was. (Chapter 2, page 29, ARC)
- Studies that looked at kids’ stress reactivity, social environments, and susceptibility to respiratory illness followed, resulting in the graph in Chapter 3 (page 47 of the ARC) that is the heart of the book. The kids identified as dandelions show only a slight increase in their respiratory illness rates as the stress in their social environments increases. The kids identified as orchids show much lower illness rates in low stress environments, but much higher illness rates in high stress environments (a line with a much steeper slope). The researchers’ conclusion/epiphany was that the orchid children “were more open, more permeable, more tender to the powerful influences, both bad and good, of the context in which they were living and growing.” (Page 48, ARC)
- Chapter 7 is about “The Kindness and Cruelty of Children” and how dominance structures in preschool and later classrooms can disproportionately affect the orchid children, who may end up bullied or isolated. He talks about “the unsung valor of the kindergarten teacher”, saying “Preschool and kindergarten teachers earn the very smallest paychecks of those who staff our national system of education, and yet they are the educators most likely to profoundly shape young minds and lives, during the most neurobiologically formative period of early learning.” (Page 151, ARC)
- Chapter 8 is about what you can do as a parent to help orchid children, distilled from his years of researching and treating orchid children, and watching his sister, his orchid daughter, and others. Here's a summary quote about these recommendations, which are well worth a look in full: “These then are the potent secrets of raising, teaching, or shepherding a happy and healthy, if delicate, orchid boy or girl: the power of sameness and routine, the gifts of attentiveness and love, the celebration of human differences, the affirmation of a true and genuine self, the balance between protection and emboldening challenge, and the beneficence of play.” (Page 172, end of Chapter 8, ARC)
- In Chapter 10 he does get to the nature of the spectrum of orchid to dandelion. After describing on of his own childhood experiences he says: “Looking back on it now, it is one last reminder of an essential point: orchids and dandelions aren’t a binary division cutting humanity into two categories. The two flowers are powerful metaphors, or a vivid shorthand, for what is actually a spectrum.” (Page 220, ARC) I agree with this, but think he could have made the point a bit clearer earlier.
- In the Conclusion, Boyce gets into what he thinks we should be doing as a society to protect orchid children. Using an analogy to legal protections for lead (which especially help certain kids who are the most sensitive to lead poisoning), he posits that making the social improvements that would help orchid kids would also help all kids. Even more compelling, he notes, "this same subgroup of orchid kids, most sensitive to the developmental and health effects of poverty, violence, and despair, are the same group that is most likely to dramatically benefit from exposure to supportive, nurturant, and encouraging social contexts." (Page 232, ARC, Conclusion)
If any of these tidbits catch your eye, then you should give The Orchid and the Dandelion, released last week, a look. It does take some time and mental focus to read it all the way through, but I think you'll find this investment worthwhile. I know I did. I learned a lot. Recommended!
Publication Date: January 29, 2019
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Please note that quotes are from the ARC, and may differ from the final printed book, particularly in regards to page numbers.
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