Is your child a dandelion, an orchid, or a tulip?

It’s widely accepted children’s development reflects an interaction between their genes and the environment they are raised in. More tentative is the intriguing idea that the role of the environment is more consequential for some children than others. A new study might be able to help explain how environmental sensitivity might add to our understanding of the differences among children.

This is known as the “orchid hypothesis” and is used to consider type of behaviors and reactions to situations. This hypothesis is used to examine children in particular.

Researchers first introduced orchid and dandelion theory in 2005. It showcased how genetics play a role in a child’s sensitivity and how environment determines whether or not that child will thrive. Researchers recently added a third category on the sensitivity scale.

The orchid hypothesis categorizes people into three categories based on how sensitive they are (dandelions, orchids, tuips).

Dandelions are less sensitive children. These children are hearty and grow anywhere. They are able to root and survive almost anywhere. Those who are dandelions are considered to be “tough” and can adapt to any situation, no matter where they are

Orchids are highly sensitive children. They are difficult to tend to, but thrive when it’s done correctly. If someone is an orchid, they’re highly sensitive and have to be in the right environment, otherwise they’ll “wither.” Those who receive proper care and attention “thrive.”

Tulips are children who fall between high and low sensitivity. They are delicate like orchids and hearty like dandelions.

Being an orchid, tulip, or dandelion isn’t all just about the biology and genetic reasons for these behaviors. Scientists and psychologists use these classifications to predict if the child’s environment and upbringing can protect them from the barriers they may face.

For example, if an orchid child grew up in a home with a supportive family, they are less likely to show the more extreme signs of sensitivity. An orchid child growing up in a more negative environment, however, would be more vulnerable to having negative reactions when bad things happen. A dandelion child in a similar negative environment would be genetically “stronger” enough to handle bad situations, and therefore wouldn’t have those negative reactions, or their negative reactions wouldn’t be as extreme.

This framing suggests that our environment (and the tools in our environment) plays a huge difference in whether we show our unique qualities or not.

Cover image credit.

About the author

Ian O'Byrne

Dr. W. Ian O’Byrne is a educator, researcher, & speaker. His work centers on teaching, learning, and technology. He investigates the literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online & hybrid spaces.

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