As a father of a 4-year-old son and a pastor of a church, I have a particular concern and care for the growth and development of children. W. Thomas Boyce is an accomplished professor of developmental and behavioral health and chief of the division of developmental medicine at University of California, San Francisco. I found his book “The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive” to be an absolute delight. While he has a distinguished background in medicine, Boyce writes this book for a general audience. It is the best book of non-fiction under 300 pages I have read in quite a few years.
I could never do his book justice in summary. However, I will share a few morsels that I found to be of special interest and encouragement. While the dichotomy of “nature and nurture” echo through the annals of popular cultural mythology regarding human growth and development, Boyce offers a layered, intriguing account.
Children are not merely endowed as more or less vulnerable or resilient to their environments. Some children (“orchid children”) are exceptionally and typically more sensitive to the nature of their social worlds. Orchids make up roughly one in five of the population. Moreover, there is overlap between orchid children and the minority of children who require the majority of healthcare. Other children (“dandelion children”), it would seem, can be planted in nearly any place and thrive relatively well. Picture actual dandelions growing between cracks in the pavement. Dandelion children are less sensitive to the nature of their social world. Resilience, as it turns out, is common, not rare.
Orchid children have tremendous potential for pain and hardship and for excellence and flourishing. In various studies, orchid children showed intense reactions to sudden stressors. Dandelion children are less sensitive to their environments and can bounce back through adversity. While orchid children may have greater potential, they also need more support and protection in order to thrive than their dandelion counterparts.
At different points in the book, I wished for particular children I know to be orchids of high potential, while at other times I found myself hoping for them to be well-adjusted dandelions not so porous to volatile environs. It was hard for me not to read my own story and others’ stories between the lines.
Boyce weaves his life story and that of his younger sister Mary throughout the book. He, as it would turn out, is a dandelion who would go on to experience an abundance of opportunity and success, and his sister Mary, an orchid, would vacillate between joy and deep pain and instability.
This creates a further occasion for Boyce to explore the fact that he and his sister shared much of the same genetic material and family setting as children. Yet, he observes: “Not only do orchid and dandelion children experience their natal homes in vastly different ways, but the developmental emergence of their very identities, as orchids or dandelions, is shaped in part by their unique niches within multidimensional family ‘nests.’ Is the child a boy or girl? Was she born first, second, or third? Into a one or two parent family? Awash in wealth or pinioned by poverty.”
“My orchid sister, Mary,” Boyce continues, “for all of her tenderness and brilliance, was reared in a different family – albeit nominally the same family – from that of her dandelion brothers. And the effect of that difference was to set her upon a path toward disappointment and disease.”
The nurturing relationship, however, between parent and child is not limited to the present. Not only are the genes of parents, grandparents and other ancestors passed down through the generations, but so too are their experiences. Boyce notes, “Research on the health liabilities of children born to survivors of the Holocaust similarly give hints that the psychological and physical traumas of one generation are heritable, by some means, into the next.”
Interestingly, in addition to mountains of research, they interviewed a group of previously studied preschool children 30 years later. The same characteristics of the orchid and dandelion phenotypes were present.
As I finished the book, I reflected on my role as a father and on parenthood is general. Parenthood, like other vocations, jobs and ways of life, is a calling, a trajectory on which a person or couple feel compelled and fulfilled. By the end of this book, I felt that my care as a parent, teacher, pastor and friend of children will be the most vital work I do in this life.
In his closing remarks, Boyce reflects, “May heaven help us if we fail to provide the redemptive care and steadfast love that renders the weakest strong, the most fragile hearty, the least the best. And may heaven reward us if we manage to do so.”
I am grateful for books such as this one that deeply enhance my life and imagination as a father and a pastor.
SAM CODINGTON is pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in San Diego. He and his wife Esther have a 3-year-old son, Ezra, and can often be found running at Lake Murray and Mission Beach.