Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Orchid or Dandelion?

As you look around the Thanksgiving table on Thursday and size up friends and family, try this new framework for thinking about loved ones. Would Uncle Larry be best described as a dandelion--a hardy, rugged, weed-like character who can push up through the asphalt and survive with little attention? Or would he best be described as an orchid, an unusual and finicky guy who has required hot-house conditions but has made good--and then some--in his circuitous life?

In an article in December's The Atlantic entitled The Science of Success, David Dobbs elaborates on this metaphor in a thought-provoking way that might have bearing on how we view and raise our children. He cites a number of research studies that show what might seem intuitively obvious--that environment and parenting (read nurture)impact personalities and have huge effect on the expression of certain emotional/psychological genetic tendencies (read nature). We know that if a person has an inherited tendency to depression, an unfortunate confluence of life events (divorce, death, debt or disease to name the big D's of life) or any one of them alone can be enough to trigger severe psychological disorder.

What Dobbs says we have not taken into account is the idea that these genetic tendencies must have survived in the gene pool for some "reason." In fact, he says, a genetic predisposition for some emotional "disorders"--and he especially looks at ADD (attention deficit disorder)--may actually impart a selective genetic advantage under the right (hot house?) conditions. The energy, ability to multi-task, and the creativity and flexibility inherent in some of these folks will make them productive contributors to society at levels beyond those of the dandelions in our midst. But only if their disorganization, inattention, proclivity to accidents and poor judgment doesn't get the better of them first.

So what is a parent to do? My answer would be that we need to be realistic about our genetic tendencies (look at Uncle Larry with an objective eye), recognize potential emotional and psychological problems early in our children, and learn to be "professional parents" to the more complicated plants under our care. And now, in addition, we can be thankful for their presence in our midst and optimistic that with careful nurturing they will bloom and flourish alongside the hardy dandelions.

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