We are all products of our genes and our environment, of nature and nurture. Thanks to research on parenting and child development, people are more aware than ever of how various environmental circumstances, including social and emotional experience, can help or harm young people. But when scientists, policymakers and ordinary citizens discuss development research, they often make a simple but important mistake: they tend to assume that the results apply to all children equally.
The truth is that developmental science, like many other fields, focuses primarily on mean effects, which can mask as much as they illuminate. Not all children, adolescents or even adults are equally susceptible to the effects of the experience. As my past research has shown, some children are strongly influenced by their environment, while others seem unresponsive. For this reason, the first group benefits from interventions and suffers from negative experiences such as harsh punishments or rejection by peers. But the latter children will be much less affected by these same exposures. I suggested this distinction quite sometime ago, and it has since stimulated research and discovery. The idea gained traction with a wide audience thanks in part to the popularized terminology of “orchid children” for those particularly sensitive to environmental influences and “dandelion children” for children who seemed to be little shaped by such effects. Some researchers have taken this floral language further, postulating the existence of “tulipswho are moderately influenced by their experiences.
But this line of thinking risks implying that at any level — orchid, tulip or dandelion — young people will be influenced by all aspects of their environment to the same extent. I’ve always wondered about this. Would the so-called orchids, for example, really be also likely to be exposed to different exposures, such as skilled literacy instruction, emotional parental support, peer rejection, and poor math instruction? And would so-called dandelions be just as insensitive? Instead, I wondered if some or even most children might be affected in varying degrees by varying exposures. Perhaps there are children who are sensitive to strong academic instruction, moderately sensitive to peer pressure, and resilient to the negative effects of absent parents, for example.
Recently, my collaborators and I decided to explore these questions. In several studies, we have examined multiple environmental influences and their effects on large groups of children. We’ve found an intriguing pattern: while real tulips, dandelions, and orchids may exist, many children are indeed a mosaic. Children in the latter category are susceptible to some influences but not others. Moreover, their susceptibility may differ depending on when, that is, when, in their development, they are exposed to a given experience.
Consider the social environment. In a recent study, we investigated whether the children who are most strongly affected, for better or for worse, by the quality of parenting are similarly influenced by their peers. We looked at data from 1,364 US children, ages 10 to 15, who were part of a long-term early childhood development and care study. We had access to information from teachers, parents and children themselves and the results of several different relationship and behavior assessments.
We then investigated whether peer-parent relationships could predict children’s future well-being. Consistent with previous work, some children – 7% – were “orchids”, heavily influenced by both parents and peers. In these cases, positive and supportive relationships with family and friends were linked to better adolescent adjustment – and conflicted and difficult relationships early in life were associated with poorer functioning in adolescence. We also identified 10% of children who were “dandelions,” highly insensitive to both of these social influences, with no clear link between the quality of their relationships and their subsequent behavior.
The common ground, however, was not simply “tulips” with moderate sensitivity to their relationships. In fact, 15% of children were found to be very sensitive to peers, but do not parents, and 19 percent showed the opposite pattern. Thus, there were quite a few “mosaics”.
In another recent study, we took a closer look at a widely held assumption that the first three to five years of life are most influential shape who we will become. This time, we looked at the assessments made each year as part of public records collected for 605,344 Danish children. This dataset included information on parental divorce, mental health issues, incarceration, unemployment, and death. In particular, many, but not all, of the young people in our sample were exposed to a difficult family life both before the age of five and between 13 and 18 years old.
We also had information about whether children had issues at age 18-19, such as not completing school or receiving a mental health diagnosis. When we analyzed the data, we found that just under two-thirds of the children (62.1%) looked like orchids, tulips or dandelions, with a similar sensitivity to adversity (or lack thereof). ) at both developmental periods. However, many of the more than 600,000 remaining individuals were indisputable mosaics: 6.5% of children were very vulnerable to adversity in early life but very insensitive in adolescence, and 6.7% exhibited the reverse profile.
We conducted a third study on some 40 different environmental effects for children between three months and 4.5 years. Factors we considered included family income, maternal depression, and parenting behavior, as well as center characteristics, such as quality of caregiving and hours, months, and years spent in care. We linked these factors to both desirable traits – for example, strong social and language skills – and undesirable traits – such as aggression and disobedience – just before children start formal school in the age of 4.5 years. Again we found orchids and dandelions, but the vast majority of the children were mosaics.
It would be a mistake to throw out the orchid-tulip-dandelion baby with the proverbial bathwater. It is clear that some children fit these profiles. Our new work builds on the momentum created by this way of thinking and advances researchers’ understanding. Evidence that most children are mosaics could persuade societies to rethink “one size fits all” interventions intended to promote developmental wellbeing. For example, the assumption that children are most shaped by their early life experiences has led many countries to place more emphasis and invest in efforts that target early childhood, as opposed to adolescence. But our work suggests that these approaches can miss out on many adolescents whose lives could be improved. Ultimately, societies should strive to provide safety and security for all children throughout early development and adolescence.
Our findings on peer and parental influence, meanwhile, suggest that therapists or teachers need individualized treatments to help children with psychological and behavioral problems. In some cases, they should consider the home environment first, but in others, they should focus on their peers. In other words, we must recognize that each child is unique in what will and will not shape their development. Long live difference !