Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Upside of Orchids

After reading my last two posts, one might conclude that it's better to be a dandelion than an orchid. Sure, one forgoes the shot at the particularly odd brilliance of a well-nurtured orchid, but doesn't being an intelligent, well-adjusted dandelion outweigh the risks of emotional instability that come with orchidness?

Maybe. Maybe not. In thinking about children I've known, one set of siblings stuck out immediately as a clear illustration of the upside orchids and, by extension, the risks involved in dandelion-ness.

Years ago, I was a substitute teacher in a rural New Mexican school district. I taught all grades, so I got to know several sets of siblings fairly well. In one family of six siblings I taught the eldest 6th-grade girl Shania, a second-grade boy David, and the kindergartener Brianna. Brianna and Shania were in special education. David was not. When I taught Shania, I would ask her about her work. She would answer, "I don't know" to my questions often, but with further probing, I often found she did know. She knew a lot. She lacked confidence in herself, and risking being wrong seemed a safer option than being proved wrong. Shania, I suppose, fits the dandelion mold well.

Brianna I taught in the beginning of the year, and then again toward the end. When I first met her, her teacher was drawing dots on her paper for her to trace in order to write her name. When I began teaching her special education class in late April, she sat waiting patiently as I asked the class to write their names on their papers. "Brianna, does your teacher still make the dots for you?" She nodded. "Phoney, baloney, I know you can write your own name! You may have her fooled, but you're not foolin' me!" (Okay, I didn't know if she could write her name, but it was a gamble that ended up paying off, luckily.) Brianna, in shaky handwriting wrote her name, looked up at me, and beamed. She did it!

How did she manage to go through almost an entire school year without once being asked to write her own name? I don't mean to cast blame on her very over-worked teacher, but I can see how Brianna managed to slip through in this case. First, she looks really young. She's petite, and looks much younger than the other five and six year-olds in her class. And she rarely speaks. (I remember she got pulled out by the speech therapist quite often. I often wondered if her speech pathology was a motor problem or just one of extreme shyness.) Brianna mostly sits quietly, smiles, and looks heart-breakingly cute. In an otherwise rowdy kindergarten class, she's every teacher's dream. And an unmistakable dandelion.

David is everything his sisters aren't. Prone to outbursts, tears, and frustration, I know he drove his regular teacher to fits of screaming herself. When I subbed David's class, not one minute into our day David had his first meltdown. I asked the class to take out their pencils and paper. David erupted, "I don't have a pencil! I don't have a pencil!" "Maybe you can borrow one from a friend?" I offered. "I don't have any friends. Nobody likes me! They all hate me!" "Nonsense," I said. "I know your class is very kind and helpful. I'm sure somebody here would like to be a good friend and loan you a pencil. Now, who here has a pencil they'd like to share with David?" Hands shot up among cries of "me, me! I do! I do!" David, within his family as well as his class, was an orchid among dandelions.

After reflecting on my experiences with these three siblings, it's apparent to me how Brianna and Shania tested into special education and David didn't. David, when faced with a problem he couldn't solve, would dissolve into tears and cries of "I can't do it! I can't!" And someone: a teacher, a parent, a fellow student, would come to his aid and help him solve his problem. Brianna and Shania, on the other hand, would say nothing about the difficulty, and thus, never gained mastery over tasks. Not because they couldn't do it, mind you, but because no one noticed that they needed help. And so their brother's orchidness became a cumulative advantage that determined his testing above the threshold for special education while his sisters fell below it. His orchidness expressed itself in such a way that allowed him to get the help he needed while his dandelion sisters slipped through the academic cracks.

It makes me wonder, as a parent, when do I fail to notice when my more dandelion-leaning daughter needs help simply because she doesn't express it in a way I've come to recognize in her older orchid sister? Perhaps there are other downsides to dandelion-ness that have gone unnoticed. I hope that for Shania and Brianna, someone recognized that despite quiet, good-natured ways, they needed academic nurturing just as much as their orchid brother.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

One Orchid, One Dandelion

I don't usually write about my own children here. I tend to think of this blog as my "professional" writing space, and the "personal" stuff I put elsewhere.

But in reading David Dobbs' article in The Atlantic, I found my personal and professional selves were equally piqued. See, I have two daughters, both of whom are wonderful, loving, and endearing. And while they may look much alike from the outside, they could not be more different temperment-wise.

As an infant, the elder required at least 1-2 hours--and sometimes more--of nursing to fall asleep at night. At 20 months, she began crying at any song that was in a minor key. At 3 years-old, she recalls emotionally-stirring incidents that happened well over a year ago. She's my orchid.

Her younger sister is pure dandelion. At bedtime, you can lay her in her crib, she'll pop her two favorite fingers in her mouth, and within a few minutes, she'll be asleep. She weaned herself at about 8 months--just decided to move on one day. She just learned to climb the stairs on her own--not the way her sister learned, mind you: by trying and falling, mastering a few more, falling and trying again. Oh, no. She'd try one stair, fall down, and quit. She seemed content to remain downstairs until one day when she found she had mastered that first stair, she proceeded to climb the entire staircase. She wasn't willing to risk falling the way her sister did to master the skill. She also hasn't learned to walk at 12 months the way her sister did, or figure out how to jump out of her crib at 9 months. She's careful and cautious in a dandelion (and, admittedly, greatly-relieving-to-me) kind of way.

Before I had children, I really believed that environment--not genetics--had the greatest influence on who we become as people. Raising my daughters, however, it's unmistakable to me how parts of personality are hard-wired. Granted, I have a sample size of 2 for this study. And birth order, naturally, must play a part; but, my daughters were different babies in utero. We know the younger self-soothed with her fingers from her ultrasound pictures. Her older sister never seemed to learn to calm herself, was always dependent on her caregivers to help her. I don't know how else to explain these differences in personality other than through genetics.

I hadn't really reflected on it before, but I suppose I'm a different parent to each of them. I tend to think of them as a unit, "the girls," but I'm recognizing that my bond with each of them is different, is based on a unique set of needs and wants. In my coming posts, I hope to explore more the (sometimes ugly, sometimes lovely) truth of who I am as a parent to one orchid and one dandelion.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Raising Orchid Children

I just finished reading a fantastic article in The Atlantic by David Dobbs entitled, "Orchid Children." The "orchid hypothesis" of child development, as Dobbs explains, is quite similar to my own hypothesis about postpartum mood disorders: "Genetics loads the gun; environment pulls the trigger." In other words, genes are responsible for our sensitivity to mood problems, but it's the particular ecosystem in which we live that determines if mood problems develop.

Let me try to explain this "orchid hypothesis" that Dobbs reported on in the article. We all know someone who survived some terrible childhood trauma. This person may have survived verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse. These people should be complete emotional messes as adults. And yet, maybe with therapy, maybe without therapy, they are pretty well-functioning adults. There's a whole sub-genre of memoirs out there written by such people. ("Once in a House on Fire" by Andrea Ashworth is a fine and much-recommended example.) These people, according to the hypothesis, would be called dandelions. They flourish under all kinds or stresses and in adverse environments, much like the dandelions in lawns--chemically-treated and otherwise--everywhere.

And then you have the orchids. Orchids are much more sensitive to their enviroment. They are highly reactive to even seemingly small amounts of stress. In children, they may be quick to throw tantrums; cry easily; hit, kick, punch or bite their parents or caregivers. In adults, "orchid-ness" often manifests itself as anxiety or depression.

So then, the theory goes, there are 2 types of the same gene that determines whether you have a "dandelion" or "orchid" temperment. You may be thinking it's better to get the "dandelion" variation over the "orchid" form, but it's not quite so simple.

A well-tended "orchid" when it blooms, blooms magnificently. When "orchids" are raised in highly responsive, stable, and emotionally-attunded ecosystems (which includes every caregiver with whom the child has contact), these children channel their propensity for risk and excitement in, well, exciting ways. You may know some of these people, too. They take on interesting and creative projects. They maintain a network of fun, diverse friends. They may be empathic beyond the norm. They have that vision thing, seeing possibilities where most see nothing at all.

So, this hypothesis has got me excited for all kinds of reasons. Here are some of the possible implications I've been thinking about: What if the orchid hypothesis also applies to parents who suffer postpartum mood disorders? Does being an "orchid parent" mean that recovery from ppmds or baby blues makes one a more intuitive, sensitive parent in the long run? In raising "orchid children," how do we best help them succeed? In successfully raising an orchid, do "dandelion siblings" reap benefits, or does the dandelion-parent bond suffer?

In my coming posts, I hope to explore all these (and more) questions further. In the meantime, peace to all the dandelions and orchids out there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Preventing Holiday Meltdown

Feeling overwhelmed by the mad dash to the holidays, I took a break to read my friend Kristen's thoughts on preventing holiday meltdowns--both for yourself and for the little ones. I will keep her ideas about setting realistic expectations for holiday activities much in the fore of my mind over the next few weeks. Thanks, Kristen!