Cover image for The orchid and the dandelion : why some children struggle and how all can thrive / W. Thomas Boyce MD.
The orchid and the dandelion : why some children struggle and how all can thrive / W. Thomas Boyce MD.
Publication Information:
[Toronto] : Allen Lane, 2019.

Physical Description:
xviii, 277 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
"From one of the world's foremost researchers and pioneers of pediatric health--a book that fully explores a revolutionary discovery about childhood development, parenting, and the key to helping all children find happiness and success. In Tom Boyce's extraordinary new book, he writes of his acclaimed and pathfinding work as a developmental pediatrician working with troubled children in child-development research for almost four decades, and explores his major discovery: that certain variant genes can increase a person's susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors. Rather than seeing this "risk" gene as a liability, Boyce, through his daring research has recast the way we think of human frailty, and has shown that while these "bad" genes can create problems, they can also, in the right setting and the right environment, result in producing children who not only do better than before, but far exceed their peers. His work has revealed there are two different kinds of children: the "dandelion" child (hardy, resilient, healthy), able to survive and flourish under most circumstances, and the "orchid" child (sensitive, susceptible, fragile) who, given the right support, can thrive as much, if not more, than other children. Orchid children, Boyce makes clear, are not failed dandelions; they are a different category of child, with special sensitivities and strengths, and need to be nurtured and taught in special ways. In The Orchid and the Dandelion, Boyce shows us how to understand these children for their unique sensibilities, their considerable challenges, and their remarkable gifts."-- Provided by publisher.


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Material Type
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649.1 BOY Book Adult General Collection

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From one of the world's foremost researchers and pioneers of pediatric health--a book that offers hope and a pathway to success for parents, teachers, psychologists, pyschiatrists, and child development experts coping with "difficult" children. A book that fully explores the author's revolutionary discovery about childhood development, parenting, and the key to helping all children find happiness and success.

In The Orchid and the Dandelion , Dr. W. Thomas Boyce writes of the "dandelion" child (hardy, resilient, healthy), able to survive and flourish under most circumstances, and the "orchid" child (sensitive, susceptible, fragile), who, given the right support, can thrive as much as, if not more than, other children.

For the past four decades Boyce has been working with troubled children. The Orchid and the Dandelion offers help to those who have lost their confidence in the promise of a child gone seriously adrift--into drug abuse, delinquency, depression, or destructive friendships, the dark territory of psychological trouble, school failure, or criminality.

Boyce's breakthrough research reveals how genetic makeup and environment shape behavior. Rather than seeing this "risk" gene as a liability, through his daring research, Boyce has recast the way we think of human frailty and shows that while variant genes can create problems (susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors), they can also, in the right setting and with the right nurturing, produce children who not only do better than before but far exceed their peers.

He describes what it is to be an "orchid" child, to live a life far more intense, painful, vivid, and variable than that of a dandelion. For orchid children, the world is often a frightening and overwhelming place. He makes clear that orchids are not failed dandelions and shows people how to embrace the unique gifts, abilities, and strengths of orchid children and how to create and environment at home and work that will allow them to flourish.

Boyce writes, as well, of dandelions: how vital they are to what George Eliot describes as "the growing good of the world," even in the midst of their own struggles and life challenges. He writes of his own family, particularly of his sister, the inspiration for his work, an orchid child overcome by the family's tragedies and sadnesses to which the author, as a dandelion child, was impervious.

And we come to understand that beneath the servicable categories of "orchid" and "dandelion" lies the truer reality of a continuum, a spectrum of sensitivities to the world, along which we all have a place.

Author Notes

W. THOMAS BOYCE, M.D., is the Lisa and John Pritzker Distinguished Professor of Developmental and Behavioral Health and chief of the Division of Developmental Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. He is also a member of the National Academy of Medicine and codirector of the Child and Brain Development Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He lives with his wife in Oakland, California.



My younger sister, Mary, was a freckle-faced, winsome little girl who was to one day mature into a young woman of stunning physical beauty. Cherubic as a child in both countenance and constitution, she charmed all who saw and knew her, with a quick, multiply dimpled smile, a coy reserve, and an acuity of thought you could see behind her young blue eyes. She had changed her name from Betty to Mary in mid-adolescence, in what could only have been an anguished attempt to press the reset button on her receding youth, by starting again with another name. Yet her decline into a life beset by suffering and incapacity masked an extraordinary array of often hidden but truly exceptional gifts. She had an artist's eye and an almost intuitive capacity for seeing and creating beautiful and engaging physical environments. In another life, she might have become a designer or a decorator of great renown, and even today many of her treasured paintings, chairs, tchotchkes, and baubles still adorn the homes of her brothers, daughter, nieces, and nephew.      But Mary's greatest, perhaps least visible asset was her immense intel­ligence, which became ever more apparent as she grew and studied, and which was ultimately rewarded by a baccalaureate degree from Stanford University and a graduate degree from Harvard. She was regarded by her professors not simply as a diligent and promising student, but as a gifted young scholar, full of uncommon insight and possessed of a luminous mind. She was surely the most intelligent, creative, and clever member of our family, her older brother a shadow of her astonishing acuity and vision. Clearly introverted and shy by inclination and temperament, by late childhood she had mastered the ability to win the attention and affection of other children and to engage in intimate and satisfying per­sonal friendships. Many of her relationships in primary school were car­ried with her into adult life, despite the sad unwinding of her health that was soon to follow.      So the curly, red-haired infant girl that my parents brought home in my own third year of life became my first, best friend, the abiding, readily-at-hand playmate with whom I spent long hours in games, elab­orate stories, and elegant fantasies. Seldom tiring of each other's com­pany, we spun endless collaborative tales of make-believe adventure and intrigue and fed our dual fancies for magical, imaginary play. I marveled at her ingenuity when she managed, during one memorable naptime, to shove a whole small box of raisins up her nose one by one, a misadventure that brought a trip to the doctor's office. There she was magnificently emptied of scores of mucus-laden raisins with a long, shiny forceps that disappeared impossibly deep within a three-year-old pug nose. I became recurrently and loudly indignant at her penchant for carsickness on long car trips, when she reliably vomited on the seat between us, once on her brother himself, and once, most unforgivably, on his prized "Indian tent" (so named because he didn't know the words "teepee" or "wig­wam"). I worried over her safety, once rushing to her aid at the beach when, tightly encircled with an inflatable life ring snug round her waist, she ended up an inverted buoy, butt and legs flailing in the air and a sputtering fount of seawater when righted. She and I were pals as much as sister and brother, an equal partnership of sublime, noisy play with no limits, few rules, and a mutual devotion to outrageous imagination. Though I couldn't have said it at the time, I really loved her, as much as a five-year-old can love his sister, and she loved me.      When our younger brother came along, nearly a decade after my sis­ter's birth, we reveled together in the joys of joint big brotherhood and sisterhood and joined our parents in unabashed worship of this unher­alded, carrot-topped infant. An archival 1957 Christmas card in our brother Jim's second month of life so captures this physical, encircling family endearment that it has been forever since referred to as "The Adoration of the Magi Card." Mary and I became even closer through our shared, sometimes competitive but always tandem joy at the advent of a new baby brother. As our minds and bodies began to change with the onset of puberty, we entered adolescence with as close and caring a relationship as siblings ever have--rich in history, suffused with love of family, and filled with a shared sensibility about the nature of the world and the character and purpose of our lives.      And then the bottom fell away. Our family moved five hundred miles north to the San Francisco Bay Area, where our dad would pursue a doc­toral degree in education at Stanford, clearly by then a "mature student." In the months leading up to the decision to depart, he had become profoundly depressed, suffering in the language of that time a "nervous breakdown," which miserably fastened him to our living room couch for days at a time. It disallowed his work and sent him into a visible and unsettling oblivion of emotion, fierce tears, and uncertainty about his future. We nonetheless moved to the north, where all of the social, physical, and pedagogical environments we had known were gone. We were suddenly awash in a sea of newness, challenged and dismayed by unfamiliar social and geographical landscapes. The neighborhood in which we now played was unmapped and starkly foreign; the schools we attended were peopled with vast crowds of nameless kids; and even our family felt adrift and unanchored in these new, stormy waters.      Mary and I entered unfamiliar schools, and within a year or two had both encountered the even stranger, enemy territory of middle school. Our mom, preoccupied with the exigencies of caring for an infant child, did her best to soften the blow of how our young worlds had turned upside down, but her own support, our dad, was immersed in a deep­ening vortex of graduate studies, classes, and student obligations. Our parents' marriage, perennially troubled by discord and disagreement--over family budgets, child discipline, conflicting wills, and imagined slights--took an ominous turn toward more physical, serious struggles. Two beloved grandparents and two uncles died; we moved a second time to a new home closer to the Stanford campus; and our dad, hav­ing completed his degree, took a new and even more challenging and consuming job.      None of these closely clustered events in the life of a young family about to enter the 1960s were uniquely onerous or even remarkable for their severity or perniciousness. Indeed, many families routinely sustain disruptions and stressors of equal or greater magnitude and scope, and some have endured unspeakable adversities that only their most fortu­nate members survive. But the aggregation of these multiple, if mundane events proved gravely traumatic for my sister. Following our family's second residential move and her enrollment in the local middle school, she developed a serious, systemic physical illness that was distressingly unidentifiable for several months. Her recurrent fevers, whole-body rashes that would come and go, and swelling of her spleen and lymph nodes were at first suggestive of leukemia or lymphoma, leading to a series of hospitalizations and painful, invasive tests. But ultimately, as her joints began to hurt and swell, the illness became recognizable as Still's disease, an unusually severe presentation of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Our parents took Mary out of school, and she spent an entire year at bed rest, treated with aspirin, steroids, and alternating heat and cold to loosen and quiet her angry joints. As her big brother, I watched, bewildered and uneasy, as my sister's life unraveled in a bedroom at the end of the hall. Though she continued to have recurrent arthritis throughout the remainder of her life, by year's end she had sufficiently recovered to return to normal life.      Sadly, however, normal life did not return to her. Rather, in the after­math of her chronic rheumatologic illness, Mary began showing signs of something awry in her mind. She stopped eating and lost weight, withdrew from her friends, and was eventually diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that disproportionately affects adolescent girls. She returned over and over to the hospital for therapy and imposed nutrition, was enrolled in a series of boarding schools that her psychia­trists thought possibly therapeutic, but continued to descend into a maelstrom of depression, insomnia, withdrawal from social contacts, and increasingly unusual behavior and thought. By the end of high school, she carried a suspected devastating diagnosis of schizophrenia--arguably the worst medical news that parents can ever hear, possibly exceeded only by that of a child's death. Excerpted from The Orchid and the Dandelion by W. Thomas Boyce All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.