Dandelions and orchids

While resilient “dandelion” children thrive in any environment, ultra-sensitive “orchild children” will “wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care,” writes David Dobbs in The Atlantic Monthly. 

So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

. . .  The many dandelions in a population provide an underlying stability. The less-numerous orchids, meanwhile, may falter in some environments but can excel in those that suit them. And even when they lead troubled early lives, some of the resulting heightened responses to adversity that can be problematic in everyday life—increased novelty-seeking, restlessness of attention, elevated risk-taking, or aggression—can prove advantageous in certain challenging situations: wars, tribal or modern; social strife of many kinds; and migrations to new environments. Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone.

Via This Week in Education.

About Joanne


  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Thanks for the link–what a fascinating article!

  2. Don Bemont says:

    The article you link dovetails nicely with my observations teaching for more than thirty years in a poor, rather dysfunctional public school district: I suspect that, at least in this school district, there is a negative correlation between intellectual ability and school success.

    Given an interesting intellectual stimulus early in the course, a few students flash insightful responses. However, far more often than not, those students turn out to have chronic behavioral or motivational problems. Grades (and other forms of institutional praise) invariably go to the more stolid sorts.

    Further, this principle applies far better to the many unstable households than it does among our (relatively few) stable families.

    I’m not sure whether orchids and dandelions are really just new words for underachievers and overachievers, with an improved candy coating. However, I frequently reflect that many of our most troubling students would be in their element if born in a different time or place.

    It is one thing to observe the phenomenon in nature: the species of birds, exhibiting genetic variation… the individual born with a particular variation making it better suited to dealing with the cold… If that individual is born at the northern edge of the species range, then benefits to individual and species are likely to accrue… If born at the hot edge of the species range, the individual is doomed.

    Given our belief in the value of the individual, we find it very difficult to accept such an arbitrary result among humans. However, I am suspicious of any liberal, conservative, or scientific utopia that claims it would cure this problem. Rather, I am of a mind that our current societal setup is such that we lose a lot more orchids than necessary by raising them under stressed conditions, and we do so because our society is set up to maximize other things: generally the conservative vision of economic competition and the liberal vision of individual choice. At least, that is where my mind goes, as I look at families where I taught the parents and now teach their children, and good brains frequently go to waste in a mush of poor attendance, emotional problems, substance abuse, etc.

    Although the article waxes the most enthusiastic about the genetic theorizing, I suspect the most useful observations involve the intervention program detailed in paragraphs 3-5 of the linked article. Society has many deep seated reasons not to change, but mothers of young children may present a more willing audience. It am struck by the following:

    “Few programs change parent-child dynamics so successfully. But gauging the efficacy of the intervention wasn’t the Leiden team’s only goal, or even its main one. The team was also testing a radical new hypothesis about how genes shape behavior—a hypothesis that stands to revise our view of not only mental illness and behavioral dysfunction but also human evolution.”

    If they have indeed found an intervention that works, I would be a lot more optimistic about the long term value of that than I am about a hypothesis regarding human evolution or the impact of genes on human behavior.

  3. Pray tell, could he be speaking of… giftedness? Must go read this.

  4. Michael E. Lopez, Esq. says:

    One thing that the dandelion children, the orchid children, the hibiscus children, the bougainvillea children, and the lilac children can all agree on, however, is the definition of the word metaphor, and the limitations of the device.

  5. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I think the easiest way to put the research in the article into practice is just to assume that ALL kids are orchids. After all, the dandelion kids aren’t HARMED by the extra attention and care, so in an ideal world, we’d provide that for EVERYONE.

    Also, I have to admit, as an ADD child all grown up, my favorite line in the article was when they described ADD as “behaviors that annoy elementary school teachers!” 🙂

  6. Bill Leonard says:

    Why do I get the feeling that the “dandelion and orchid” theory really just provides another excuse for those who avoid responsibility for their own problems anyway? “Gee, it’s not my fault; I can’t help it if I was born this way…”

  7. I recognized my kids in this article. My oldest, in particular, was difficult practically from birth. I think I spent the fist 6 years of his life fending off suggestions from a wide variety of people that there was something wrong with him. “Stubborn is just the other side of determined and overly emotional is just an undisciplined way of being passionate,” I used to say. My philosophy was that my job is to help my kids be who they are (highly emotional, active, stubborn, neurotic, etc) in a way which will work for them in this world we’re living in. My two boys are now 14 and 10 and are actually doing quite well. My 14 year old in particular is shockingly mature for a boy his age. He’s still working some things out, but I do believe that in a few years when it’s time for him to really go out into the world, he’s going to be an amazing person. I also believe that he would have been completely destroyed in an environment with parents who were less able to really work intensively with him to turn his less desirable traits into positives. But, I have to say that raising orchids is HARD work. I wouldn’t really want to go back and start over for much of anything.

    I really loved the part of the article where they talk about how the accumulation of a particular sort of parenting can fundamentally change the way a society works. Particularly the way these “orchids” are raised. We tend to view raising kids as a very individualistic endeavor and offer very little support to people doing it. But it does have enormous implications for a whole society and I think we’d do well to remember that from time to time.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    An orchid may need a hothouse for his entire life. This will not be forthcoming.
    Perhaps some dandelioning would be productive.

  9. Actually Richard, much of raising an orchid involves teaching them how to function in the real world despite the fact that doing so often does not come naturally to them. Doing so is pretty much a great big honking DUH. What makes you think others can’t figure that out as well?

  10. Hi. I’m the author of the Atlantic story under discussion, and am glad to see it’s provoked such thoughtful replies and insights and discussions.

    I would love to follow a couple of these posts up with the authors — both out of curiosity, and because I’m starting work on a book on the subject. Anyone with more to add or to communicate to me is encouraged to do so. I’d particularly like to correspond or talk you, Don Bemont, about your comments about how this plays out in an educational setting, and you, Rebeccat, about your experience raising your now-14-year-old; I find your articulation of how “overly emotional = an undisciplined way of being passionate” is wonderfully apt and expressive.

    So Don or Rebeccat, I’d love to hear from you, and if either of you would care to share a bit more, either on or off-record, I’d be much obliged if you’d write me at david.a.dobbs[at]gmail.com. I might be a bit slow to respond over the Thanksgiving weekend, but would love to hear from you.


    David Dobbs

    PS And yes, Michael Lopez, every metaphor has its limits! Your comment gave me a good chuckle.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kriley19, JoanneLeeJacobs. JoanneLeeJacobs said: I'm a well-raised dandelion myself but don't count out the orchids: http://bit.ly/36KJRO […]