Summary of The Orchid & the Dandelion by W.Thomas Boyce

Over the years people often wonder how two siblings brought up in the same environment, with the same parents, can turn out so different. Why can some people have awful adverse life events happen in their childhoods but manage to survive them and go on to thrive, yet others struggle to cope. Why do some children struggle yet others succeed? Why are some people’s lives filled with misfortune and others with happiness? Is it genes, chance or luck?

Much like the author, my temperament, disposition, personality and life path differs greatly from that of my sister who is just two years younger than me. I have two daughters, one is mostly carefree and easy going (the dandelion), the other can be described as spirited, sensitive, dramatic and creative (the orchid).

Orchid children are typically delicate, more introverted and shy, more reactive, they can be sensitive to the environment, needing special nurturing to achieve their best. To them the world can sometimes be a frightening, overwhelming place. However, with loving and supportive help and understanding they can thrive,

Dandelion children are more durable and rugged, they are less reactive and more likely to overcome difficulties. Dandelion children prosper in almost any situation, showing resilience and adaptability.

This book helps us to understand how different children develop and grow. Many parents and teachers strive to be egalitarian in treating children exactly the same, not to show favour to one over another. Yet despite our adherence to this principle of  equity, siblings and children are remarkably different. Different children need different types of attention. It is not about dividing children into black and white categories of “vulnerable” and “resilient” but looking at a continuum of individual variation - A spectrum of sensitivities to the world, along which we all have a place.

The author, Thomas Boyce, has built up a body of impressive research that includes looking at paediatric records, the intensity of stress effects on children, the biology of shyness, the impact of family or community support, different types of caring parental behaviour, DNA sequences, and the impact of poverty on health and longevity.

Thomas Boyce has developed a list of strategies to support orchid children’s growth. Years of watching listening and studying have helped him develop this list.

1. Create routines
Orchid children are sensitive to change, the new and unexpected. These children crave sameness and routine, having a schedule, standard bedtimes with a sequence of rituals e.g. put on pyjamas, brush teeth, get into bed, story, lights out.  Routine provides children with a sense of controlling what can be an unpredictable, disordered world.

2. Love
All children crave and need parental attention and care. Orchids are especially in need of steadfast love. Parenting practices that offer reassurance to  orchid children will help them thrive. Parents are busy with work, home pressures and social obligations, however prioritising quality time for children, engaging in meaningful conversation and activity, can be invaluable.

3. Recognising & honour the goodness of human differences
No two children are raised in the same family, as time, situation, context is different. Orchid children can easily feel that they are not as good as their siblings/classmates. They can develop a sense of being more difficult or exasperating. Orchids can feel lesser, against the backdrop of the families field of dandelions.  Parents and teachers that can recognise, acknowledge and praise the special skills, strengths and differences of all children. By revealing their gifts and competencies orchid children can flourish.

4. Acceptance and affirmation
Orchid children are discerning of their parents’ /teachers’ judgements, opinions, criticism and expectations. Children will flourish if their creative self is accepted. By creating opportunities for the child’s creative expression, whether that be through music, painting or drama will develop acceptance. Using a “talking stick” at guarantees each member a chance to voice his or her own thoughts and feelings freely, without interruption.

5. The fine line between protection and provocation
Orchid children are prone to be easily triggered and reactive. A certain level of adult authority is often helpful in providing protection. However, the parenting of an orchid child must never solely be about protecting and sheltering. Adults must know when to nudge and push, encourage a child to venture into unknown and even uncomfortable psychological or physical territory. Empowering children to master situations  that at first seemed impossible. Parents of orchid children must find a delicate middle ground between pushing their naturally reticent child into activities or events that might be overpowering. It’s a hard line to walk, but with careful experimentation and observation, parents can fine-tune an approach that is most helpful for their child.

6. The power of play
Be aware of the great virtues of play, fantasy and imaginative fun. Playing brings the realities of life down to the child’s size. Playing is an enchanting break from the serious and real business of life. It is no coincidence that therapists who work with children troubled children often take the form of play.

The tone and pattern of communication that is set in the first few years of a child’s life sets the foundations for life. The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) say that the first 1000 days of life are accepted to be the most significant period in terms of a child’s development . What happens in the first 1000 days has more influence over a child’s future than any other time in their life. Most parents would agree that this period is also the most demanding and challenging!

Change and development in the early years of life is breath-taking. However it is a fact that our lives are intrinsically unpredictable. Children become challenged by adversities such as death, divorce, bullying, families moving and failure occurring. Events within individual lives both tragic and kind can disrupt the progress of development and dislodge us from the predictable road on which we were accustomed to travel. Some lives are disproportionately affected by such events. 

Our role as parents, teachers and healthcare professionals is to understand the nature of each individual child – his or her location on the scale of orchid to dandelion – and to model the most positive responses. Our own capacity to parent, teach or heal is powerfully dependent upon our own psychological and socio-economic strength and failings, which are rooted in our own distance beginnings.

The world can be a lonely, dark and scary place – whether you are young and frightened or aged and tired – but it’s the moments of goodness and love that make it possible for us to rest – sleep and trust that all will be okay in the end.

Going forward, as a society, we should consider a set of protections that we can put in place for the orchid children in our communities. These children we know are inordinately susceptible to the affects of family stressors, economic adversities, harsh parenting, exposure to violence, maltreatments neglect and abuse. Diminishing the exposure of these children with special sensitivities to societal environmental toxins, may not only protect them but could make society safer, better and healthier for all.

It makes sense that when children are placed in supportive, loving environments they do well. Children should be nurtured, so that both orchids and dandelions, can not just achieve normative health and wellbeing but become exceptional and thrive.