Orchid Children

November 23, 2009

A recent Atlantic article by David Dobbs on the “Science of Success,” offers a wealth of insights on parenting kids with highly sensitive genes—or at least genes that put them at risk for depression, ADHD and the like.  While rough and tumble kids might be likened to dandelions, which can grow in any old crack in the sidewalk, kids with potentially problematic genetic proclivities are compared to orchids—delicate beings that need the special care of a greenhouse in order to thrive.  The bad news is that if we mess up, or fail to engage and attune with these “orchid children,” they can have serious problems with school, life and mental health, however if we get it right, these kids can be truly exceptional—even more gifted than kids with what we would have thought were “better” genes.  For the article see: http://tiny.cc/6Iguy.

As sometimes happens with science, men come running out of the lab shouting “Eureka!” about things practically every experienced mom could have already told you—only she’s been too busy taking care of the kids to spend thirty years watching monkey moms raise (and sometimes fail) their children.  Just as the world was actually round even before it was a science newsflash, folk wisdom has long known that orchid kids are potential superstars if they get the right parenting.

The real significance of science validating mothers’ intuition about the potential value in kids who have been too often seen by much of society as “problem children,” may be in helping facilitate a radical re-think about how to teach these kids—with a recognition that additional resources spent on orchid kids might be more than compassionate, it might be a great way to cultivate genius and innovation for the good of the group.  We might also recognize that these kids are harder to parent than average, and thus that their parents also merit some sort of recognition and extra support; this would be consistent with both a more compassionate as well as a more enlightened society.

We are beginning to conceptualize genes as a bit like a blueprint that our kids bring with them into the world, but parents and teachers may be like the contractors who must be skilled in interpreting, following and honoring the blueprint.  Imagine if someone hands a mediocre contractor the plans for a complex and nuanced building like Disney Hall—in the wrong hands we’re more likely to end up with a fiasco than a landmark.

Kids with sensitive genes are easier to mess up because they are highly sensitive to virtually all experiences.  As parents, however, we don’t need to be brilliant to parent brilliant kids well—we need to be calm, loving, attuned and engaged.

As interesting, validating and encouraging as this orchid child hypothesis may be for understanding these kids, many of us who may be parenting orchid kids may be wilted orchids in our own right—damaged corsages who grew up on the wrong side of the greenhouse tracks.  Meanwhile, giving what we ourselves didn’t get (i.e. attunement, a calm environment), which is often the crux of best-Self parenting, can leave us highly sensitive caregivers feeling pushed to our blooming ends.

The Atlantic article makes the point that it serves evolution to have a lot of dandelions but also a good number of orchids—seen as “highly leveraged bets” in an evolutionary sense (likely to falter, but if given the right conditions, likely to truly advance).  Thus sensitivities are reframed as plasticity and possibility, which I highly endorse and believe in; my main point, however, is empathy for the parents called to the orchid task.  To mix our metaphors, we need to know when we have a diamond in the rough on our hands—an orchid that hasn’t yet bloomed and is at risk of frustrating teachers and depleting parents who may not realize that their little thoroughbred need a different level of care, but can very likely deliver something special if properly nurtured.

This orchid hypothesis, as Dobbs calls it—the notion that seemingly “bad” genes are actually potential great genes, although only if properly parented/taught and facilitated—goes a long way toward explaining why so-called bad genes (i.e. risk for depression, ADHD, etc.) have not been bred out of us humans by natural selection.

The orchid kid as metaphor has previously shown up in the softer corners of science and psychology in more poetic voices, such as Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child as well as in Elaine Aaron’s work, “The Highly Sensitive Child” to name just two.  Aaron helps frame sensitivity as a “real” (i.e. biological) difference, but doesn’t get to the level of presenting statistical evidence for seemingly risky genes offering an actual advantage over hardy genes when the parenting environment is good.

The notion that sensitivities might represent a bona fide and scientifically valid genetic advantage could have interesting social and political implications; all sorts of differences, from gay and lesbian to anxiety, depression and spectrum disorders could all be re-visited to explore what sorts of unique gifts we all might carry, not to mention how to best support everyone in the group to be their best Selves.  Part of leaving no child behind includes figuring out what every child needs—because there is no one thing that will work for all children.  Another part of leaving no child behind is not leaving parents high, dry and behind either.

In addition to dandelions and orchids, if we’re talking plant metaphors let’s not forget the ubiquitous Narcissus, a hardy enough plant that seems to grow even better than dandelions, at least in Los Angeles.  In our, I hope soon-ending, Narcissistic Age there has been a tremendous emphasis on the individual and little understanding of the web of relationships that connect us all together, with the result being mass alienation.  The key to understanding orchids, dandelions and parents might be in conceptualizing the relationships between us all as the central point of focus, moving away from the notion of stand-alone gifted or troubled children toward an emphasis on trusting and nourishing vs. troubled and destructive relationships.

Even if science has just now realized it and made it official, homo sapiens have always been blessed with sensitivities that allow for a higher consciousness—and when enough of us wake up to loving not just all our collective children, but to loving the very relationships that pulse between us all—then we’re tickling at the edges of gratitude for the way it all is, and thus opening our hearts to a truer happiness in which our world, all our kids, and our inter-relatedness all somehow help us wake up and bloom—as individuals, but also, and better still, as a world.

Namaste, Bruce