Thoughtful Parenting: How to grow orchids

Deirdre Pepin
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

In January, W. Thomas Boyce, M.D. published “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive.” Boyce’s book is grounded in the concept of nature and nurture and gives us reason to celebrate sensitive children. Sensitive children — those who are introverted, shy, anxious, hyper vigilant, highly reactive and context sensitive — become some of the healthiest, happiest and most successful adults.

at a glance

Tips to help your orchid grow

  • Give your child alternative ways to communicate. Sensitive kids often process thoughts internally and may be uncomfortable vocalizing ideas. Use art, puppets and diaries and listen carefully.
  • Declare victory. Focus less on protecting your child from painful experiences and more on providing positive experiences. Declare victory when positive experiences occur.
  • Don’t overprotect. Don’t give your child the idea that the world is dangerous. Don’t doubt your child’s ability to handle challenges.

Boyce’s metaphor is based on research showing 80 percent of us have genes that make us hardy like dandelions. We can grow in any climate and survive just about anywhere. We can grow through cracks in pavement.

Twenty percent of us are more like orchids. We’re fragile and extremely susceptible to our environment. If given the right amount of water and light, we’re capable of blooming. Orchids are flowers of unusual delicacy and beauty.

Genes associated with antisocial and destructive behaviors, such as depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, are the same genes that bring the greatest adaptability and evolutionary success. Risk, or variant, genes exist in some of us, but the complex system of gene-environment interactions has the power to redefine them.

Instead of liabilities, risk genes can be predictors of success. In other words, because of their reactivity to their environment, orchid children have equal capacity for withering and thriving.

Using the cortisol and automatic nervous system, Boyce measured toddlers’ responses to stress stimuli, including a drop of lemon juice on the tongue, a personal conversation with a researcher and recounting number sequences.

Eighty percent of kids showed biological indifference to these adverse experiences. Their stress responses were minimally reactive. Dandelion children can survive and prosper despite most circumstances they encounter.

Twenty percent of kids showed the greatest fight or flight responses. Many had hypersensitivities to taste and sound. They startled more easily. Most were shy and introverted. Orchid children are hard wired to react more acutely to their environments.

While the most sensitive kids have risk genes, research shows they have some of the best outcomes of all kids. Orchid children are prepared for and receptive to help. In health, academics and peer relations, orchids often do better than dandelions. Kids who have the highest risk of developing negative behaviors in negative environments also have the greatest potential when they live in healthy, positive environments.

This tells us there’s a lot we can do for our kids. We can interpret character traits, such as introverted, shy and sensitive, differently. We can show love and compassion for kids of all dispositions and sensitivities. We can acknowledge children’s sensitivities and honor and accept kids for who they are.

We can encourage orchids not to give up and make sure they know we’re not trying to fix them or turn them into dandelions. We can build their confidence to deal with challenging situations by exposing them to perceived threats in small doses. We can teach them that being quiet, shy, introverted, sensitive and reactive are powerful ways of being.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Ernest Hemingway, “A Farewell to Arms.”

Horizons Specialized Services works in partnership with families and communities to expand opportunities for individuals with, or at risk of, developmental disabilities. Deirdre Pepin is the resource development and public relations coordinator for Horizons. If your child is younger than 3, and you have questions about development, contact Reid Duval, Horizons child and family service coordinator, at or 970-871-8558.

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