Tiger Moms and Orchid Kids
April 23, 2011
After the recent flap about so-called tiger moms who drive their children to achieve no matter what emotional turmoil it entails, it was interesting to stumble across a December 2009 Atlantic article by David Dobbs about the complex links between genetics and behavior. Though that issue probably littered our dining-room table at some point, my days of keeping up with magazines are long past, and I missed the piece when it was new. However, I’m heartened to think that in this one area I’m less than a year and a half out of date. (Don’t ask about my musical tastes or fashion sense.)
Dobbs first lays out the genetic theory of “vulnerability” that has become part of our cultural consciousness—the idea that some gene variants predispose us to specific diseases. Applying this to psychological maladies, he points to research indicating that certain genetic variations, such as one governing serotonin processing, enhance our risk for depression, anxiety, drug addiction, etc. These genes interact with the environment, so that the malady occurs “if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.”
Then Dobbs goes on to develop a newer idea:
Recently, however, an alternate hypothesis has emerged from this one and is turning it inside out. This new model suggests that it’s a mistake to understand these “risk” genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.
This point leads to a metaphor distinguishing two types of children: the “dandelions” who do pretty well regardless of circumstances, and the “orchid” children “who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care.” The startling idea here is that the SAME genes that make us vulnerable to neurosis or psychosis also make it possible to achieve great success. Supporting research comes from studies of both children and rhesus monkeys—the rhesus being the only other primate that shares humans’ adaptability to new environments. The reasoning ultimately reaches the conclusion that our “risky” genes endure because natural selection, far from working to eliminate these traits, actually favors them:
a genetic trait tremendously maladaptive in one situation can prove highly adaptive in another.… To survive and evolve, every society needs some individuals who are more aggressive, restless, stubborn, submissive, social, hyperactive, flexible, solitary, anxious, introspective, vigilant—and even more morose, irritable, or outright violent—than the norm.
I think of John Adams, the second U.S. president, who was apparently so bipolar that at certain key moments he froze into inaction; but when he came out of the funk and got to work, he was extraordinary.
So what does this mean for tiger mothers versus liberal, child-centered, nicey-nicey Dr. Spock mothers? Amy Chua, whose memoir and Wall Street Journal article set off the controversy, has raised high-achieving children by, she tells us, not settling for less. Screaming at the kids, insulting them, threatening, forcing them do what they hate (practice the violin, for instance)—all of these techniques are within bounds for Chua. Should we conclude that, if her daughters have “orchid”-type genes, their overstressed, abusive childhood will eventually make them socially or emotionally disturbed?
Maybe not. In his works on education, Parker Palmer emphasizes that various instructional “techniques” may work, but the sine qua non is “teaching with heart and soul,” connecting with your students and also with your own spiritual self. A key to Chua’s approach, if we can believe her, is that she does in fact connect with her kids; they never doubt how much she cares about them. Contrast this with a tolerant, permissive, but emotionally distant parent—which type is more traumatic for the child?
I suspect that the unengaged type, the skittish kitty mom who’s too distracted to pay attention, or the tomcat dad who’s never home, is far more dangerous to youthful psyches than a tiger parent.
And—to return from felines to plants—if the characteristic of orchid children is their sensitiveness to different conditions, we might also suppose that they are (a) highly variable among themselves and (b) attuned to small variations in the environment. What looks on the surface like a harrowing childhood to you or me may not be so damaging to some orchid kids who thrive on tiny but well-placed raindrops of affection.
As the saying goes, it takes all kinds, and now the geneticists agree. Still, I never want to take a music lesson from Amy Chua.