“What if the children about whom we worry most were actually those with the greatest promise?”
That’s the provocative question Thomas Boyce asks in his new book, The Orchid and the Dandelion. Boyce is co-director of CIFAR’s Child & Brain Development Program, and leads the Division of Developmental Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. His book explores the differences between two types of children: hardy “dandelions,” whose innate resilience helps them to overcome difficult life challenges; and sensitive “orchids,” whose success in meeting such challenges requires special care, given their emotional and highly perceptive natures.
How can you tell an orchid from a dandelion?
These kids tend to be behaviorally inhibited around strangers. They’re reticent in novel circumstances, and tend to withdraw. They’re also kids who seem to have an unusual number of sensory hypersensitivities.
In our research, we measured stress reactivity over the course of a 20-minute laboratory session in which children were asked to do a series of mildly stressful tasks. Things like dropping lemon juice on the tongue, or talking to an examiner that they hadn’t met before – normative stressors in the life of a young child. We monitored their biological responses to those tasks, and found that there was an enormous variability in children’s responses.
Out in the real world, when the kids who’d been very reactive in the laboratory encountered naturally occurring stressful circumstances, we found they had an enormous increase in illnesses, injuries and behavioral disorders. But in more nurturing, predictable and quiet environments, they had many fewer of those illnesses than their peers who were less reactive in the lab.
Do you think orchid children are particularly gifted, in ways that dandelions may not be?
I think they are. They’re very contemplative and observant; it goes with their openness to the world. They’re just more sensitive to the things that are going on. And they learn from those things in ways that allow them to accumulate great intelligence and insight into the way the world works.
You say that children’s experiences are not only shaped by genetic, but epigenetic factors. Can you explain what that means?
The chemical matrix that comprises the epigenome is a product of environmental experience and exposure. It lies on top of the genome, which is derived from the germ cells we inherit from our parents. The epigenome represents a true conjunction between the exposures we sustain, and the biological vulnerabilities and strengths that we bring into our own lives.
We believe that differences in the genome seem to increase an individual’s sensitivity to the experiences that they encounter in life — and the epigenome furthers that by monitoring and regulating the expression of genes along the sequence of the DNA.
In the book you tell us about your sister Mary, an orchid child whose life path was very different from yours. While you have been very successful, she struggled with mental illness and ultimately took her own life – despite being a sensitive, smart and talented young woman. Did she inspire your research?
I’d like to say so, but it really didn’t happen like that. It was probably 15 or 20 years before I started realizing that the results that we were getting seemed to explain enigmas about my family that I had never understood. I talk in the book about the idea that every photograph is a self-portrait, meaning that every picture we choose to record has within it something about us. But I didn’t come to that for many years after I started doing this work.
A key message of this book is that experiences can really change a child’s life course. That’s why, despite the powerful influence of our genes, smart parenting still matters a great deal.
I think it matters to all children. Even dandelion children, but especially these little sensitive orchid children. It is just an enormously important influence, and seems to have a major effect on the outcomes of their lives.