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The Orchid and the Dandelion: The Science of Spirited Kids

Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive, by W. Thomas Boyce

Penguin Random House
Book Cover
Source: Penguin Random House

The Orchid and the Dandelion is a book for parents bewildered by their impossibly spirited children, for teachers interested in understanding the range of children in their care, for psychologists wanting insights into individual differences, and for students of the human condition everywhere. It is seriously good and worth reading. I read it with pencil in hand, underlining ideas I wanted to hold onto, or even memorize. The Orchid and the Dandelion absorbed me like a novel.

Thomas Boyce is a pediatrician and an epidemiologist, a medical doctor who works with children and families who is also deeply concerned with population health. He has an abiding interest in questions of individual differences, how children vary from birth or earlier, and how those variations manifest in enormously different developmental outcomes. He is also a wonderfully fine writer. His humanity and warmth inform his evidence-based insights, and his clear strong prose and poetic sensitivity make his stories compelling.

In The Orchid and the Dandelion, Boyce shares a lifetime of collaborative research that was partly driven by the dramatically different lives led by his sister and himself. Boyce and his sister were best friends as children, but he went on to many kinds of personal and professional success, while she—as intellectually gifted as him, or more so—died of a suicidal drug overdose in her fifties, after decades of suffering with mental health issues.

Boyce distinguishes between “dandelion children,” those who “show a remarkable capacity for thriving in almost every environmental circumstance they encounter,” and “orchid children,” who are “exquisitively sensitive to their environments, especially vulnerable under conditions of adversity but unusually vital, creative, and successful within supportive environments.” He argues for a continuum from pure dandelion to pure orchid, a spectrum of sensitivities to the world along which we each have a place. He sees himself as more of a dandelion, with some orchid sensibilities, while he believes his sister was closer to being a pure orchid, unable to overcome the family and environmental hardships they both endured in late childhood and adolescence.

Orchid children have a tender responsivity that causes them to absorb their circumstances, often becoming the “identified patient” in a dysfunctional or abusive family. They are also a source of insight and creativity: “The same extraordinary, biologically embedded sensitivities that render such children so unduly susceptible to the hazards and adversities of life make them also more receptive to the gifts and promises of life…Orchids are not broken dandelions but a different, more subtle kind of flower.”

Thomas Boyce reports in this book on research that he and colleagues have been conducting for decades, sharing findings that shed light not only on the nature of the dandelion/orchid experience, but also on best practices for parents, teachers, mental health professionals, and policy-makers. One especially arresting area of findings shows that highly stress-reactive children (aka orchids) are either the sickest or the healthiest of children, depending on the socioemotional health of their families. Orchid children do worse than others in bad environments, and do better than others--across a variety of cognitive, academic, and health measures--in optimal environments. If you’re the parent of an orchid, you have a heavy responsibility to get it right while you have the chance.

Boyce suggests that highly reactive orchid children are not so much vulnerable as they are unusually susceptible to family conditions, as the most powerful dimension of their inordinate sensitivity to the social world. He reviews research being done on non-human primates and rats that confirms these findings in humans. As with humans, about 20% of each animal population shows an orchid-like sensitivity. When the orchid offspring are reared by nurturing mothers, they thrive and prosper. When their mothers are not nurturing, but are instead anxious, disinterested, or neglectful, the young ones don’t do well.

It is not only the family that makes a difference in an orchid child’s life. Boyce draws connections to the international research on socioeconomic differences within a population. Children being raised in countries with a larger gap between rich and poor—like the United States—don’t do as well as those growing up in more equitable circumstances, where there is less wealth disparity. There are many compelling reasons to pay attention to income inequality, and Boyce emphasizes national health and well-being, from the poorest right up to the richest, as one more of those reasons.

Another significant factor in an impressionable child’s life is the teachers they have in preschool and kindergarten. An orchid who experiences teachers early in their schooling who create an informal and accepting atmosphere, a culture of inclusion—where each child feels welcome and valued—is much more likely to thrive. A highly sensitive child whose teacher is authoritarian and cold, who praises only those who fit within a narrow framework of expectations, is more likely to experience depression and other problems impacting their physical and mental health and academic success as years go by. Dandelion children are affected by the quality of their teachers, too, but the differences in long-term outcomes aren’t nearly as dramatic.

Recommendations for Parents and Teachers of Orchid Children

In a chapter called “Sowing and Tilling the Gardens of Childhood,” Boyce pulls together his recommendations for parenting and teaching orchid children. He starts by acknowledging the enormity and sanctity of the task of parenting any child, and the burden of responsibility placed on both parents and teachers for giving children the best possible chance at making good lives for themselves. He states that there is no easy formulaic approach that is guaranteed to work, but that there are some approaches that have emerged from his decades of work as a pediatrician as promising strategies to explore.

1. The comfort of the ordinary. Orchid children can be alarmed—yes, really, alarmed— by new foods, new people, new smells. All children benefit from routines they can trust, but these routines are particularly important for orchid kids. Regular family routines—meals, chores, schedules—provide a sense of control and trust in a world that can often feel chaotic and unpredictable.

2. Pervasive attentive parental love. Steadfast, reliable, unconditional love can transfigure the life and development of an orchid child, but it takes a lot of time. Boyce writes there is no substitute for a parent’s reliably available and abundant time and attention: “Quality time is simply a cultural myth.”

3. Responsivity to individual differences. Each child brings their own unique strengths and challenges. Your orchid child needs you to recognize and honor their special sensitivity and individuality as assets.

4. Acceptance and affirmation. Orchid children can discern their parents’ judgements, and they respond vividly to those opinions. They are often imaginative, and need ways to express their creative spirits, in the knowledge they will be affirmed, and will not be criticized.

5. Both protection and encouragement. Orchid kids often have trouble with crowds and new social situations, and they should be protected from more exposure than they can handle. A parent can provide escape options while shopping or attending gatherings, and cut back on social activities. The orchid also needs to learn how to cope with the world, however, and orchid children also need slow and loving encouragement to master new situations. The balance between protection and encouragement is hard for parents to get right, and is constantly shifting as the child matures, so it requires ongoing attention from birth into late adolescence.

6. Play, fantasy, daydreaming, and imaginative fun. Play, like dreaming, is a way to bring life’s problems down to size, a way of grappling with rejection, frustration, sadness, and disappointment. Because orchid children feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more acutely than others, they are in even more urgent need than others for ample time for play, fantasy, daydreaming, and imaginative fun.

Social Policy Implications

Having reviewed his decades of parenting, pediatric practice, and research, and having thought about how his cumulative findings might be useful to parents and teachers, Boyce puts his mind to the wider implications of this work. How does social policy need to change to reflect these findings? He argues that we need to find better ways to support and sustain young families, especially those in great need. His policy recommendations include

1. Paid parental leave

2. Universal health care for all children

3. Support for preschool education

4. A minimum income for young families

5. Bolstered support for schools

6. Better training for parents, teachers, and physicians in how to better create caring, supportive environments for children’s learning, growing, and health

7. More funding for research on early life, including the consequences of exposure to adversity, and how early life shapes health, well-being, and productivity across the life span

8. Multidisciplinary alliances focused on human development

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka writes about “spirited” children, those born with difficult temperaments. Although it’s not an exact one-to-one correspondence, there is a clear connection between Boyce’s orchids and Kurcinka’s spirited kids. Those working within the spirited-child framework will find Boyce’s book full of research validation for their own observations and experiences, as well as for Kurcinka’s recommendations.

The first few years of life affect every individual’s health, accomplishment, and well-being across the life span. The Orchid and the Dandelion is a book that shows how the events and experiences of early childhood are linked to later disorders and afflictions, and how this is more powerfully true for some than for others. Our roles as adults are to understand keenly the nature of each child, and then to do our best to provide the nurturing responses they need along the way.

The Orchid and the Dandelion leaves me with much to think about, and meaningful encouragement in my own personal life as a parent and grandparent of many orchid children, and in my professional practice with children and families.


The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive, by W. Thomas Boyce

Orchids and Dandelions,” by Thomas Boyce

Dandelions, Tulips and Orchids: Evidence for the Existence of Low-Sensitive, Medium-Sensitive, and High-Sensitive Individuals,” by Francesca Lionetti, et al.

Raising Your Spirited Child, by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka

Raising a Difficult Child? Try a ‘Spirited’ Spin,” by Dona Matthews

Bad or Spirited? Picky or Discerning? Rude or Honest?” by Dona Matthews

More from Dona Matthews Ph.D.
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