white orchid on black background

Were you an orchid child? Are you an orchid parent?

For the first several years of my married life, I tried to grow a few houseplants from time to time, but I forgot to water them and they died. When I got pregnant, my husband joked that if I couldn’t keep a plant alive, I’d never be able to care for a baby. Then I had pregnancy dreams in which the baby was several months old, and all of a sudden I realized I hadn’t yet fed him.

My sons are now 30 and 35, so obviously, I figured it out. 

Although I later became an avid outdoor gardener, I still couldn’t seem to keep an indoor plant alive. So in 2018, when my brother Paul gave me an orchid for my 60th birthday, I doubted it would last until my 61st.

Orchids are considered finicky plants with specific soil, light, and water requirements. Dandelions, however, will take root everywhere, especially, it seems, the cracks in my driveway.  

Humans have similar qualities—some of us need wheelbarrows full of TLC, and others will thrive in less than stellar environments. 

Like flowers, some humans are more impacted than others by their environment.

A few years ago, I read about the child development research of Dr. W. Thomas Boyce, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco, and his book The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All can Thrive.

Boyce’s research showed that some kids are born tough, resilient, adaptive, and function well in many different environments. These are dandelion children. Other kids–orchid children–are more sensitive, thriving only in exacting surroundings under the care of nurturing adults. In-betweeners, in this theory, are tulips.

The most interesting part of the research showed that in the right conditions, orchid children do better than their hardier counterparts across a variety of cognitive, academic, and health measures. 

In other words, an orchid child does worse than others in bad environments and better than others in optimal environments.

An orchid child will display some or all of these characteristics:

  • They enjoy spending quiet time alone
  • They resist and are upset by changes or transitions
  • They are sensitive to their environment  
  • They are picky eaters
  • Noisy environments upset them

I’m not going to expound on how parents can best raise their orchid child; there are lots of resources available, including here and here and here. Or just google “orchid or dandelion.” And here’s Dr. Boyce’s TED Talk. 

What I wonder is what happens when orchids grow up?

It’s unlikely that adults outgrow the innate characteristics they displayed in childhood. But adults can learn to adapt and to manage their needs, and, having more agency about their life, can make decisions that suit their temperament. But what about when they become responsible for raising little orchids, tulips, and dandelions? Do they struggle to manage the huge responsibilities of parenting more than their dandelion counterparts?

What happens when an orchid child becomes a parent?

You won’t find much on the Internet, if anything, about orchid parents. (If you do find an article, please send it my way.) But as an orchid myself, here’s my take:

I was blessed with two nurturing parents and a loving home, so, although I was sensitive, I wasn’t overly anxious, clingy, or tearful. Other than a few difficult years in high school, I mostly thrived.

It wasn’t until I became a parent that my inner orchid truly surfaced. I wilted under the constant demands of raising children and my inability to recognize and prioritize my own need for solitude, calm, and order. Add to that mix having a child with a brain tumor, and I was about as happy as a water lily on dry land.

When I became an empty nester with time to care for myself and 20/20 hindsight, I finally realized how sensitive I was. It explained a lot about why motherhood was so hard. I wished I’d known earlier that I didn’t have to keep up with the “Joneses,” i.e., do-it-all mothers. I wished I’d given myself permission to nurture my authentic self.

So, to answer my question above:

When an orchid child becomes a parent, especially if they are raising dandelion children, it takes extra effort to balance their own needs with those of their children. Click To Tweet

Practicing self-care is one example of the extra effort required of orchid parents. Here are the ideas I shared about self-care.

In addition, below are other ways I nurture my orchid-ness. (Whether you’re a parent or not, you may find these helpful.)

How to nurture your inner orchid child:

  • Limit the stimulation from mobile devices and computers, the internet, and social media. Yes, they can be necessary tools of engagement, but even a carpenter lays down her tools to rest her hands. I turn off my devices at 9 p.m. and cut back on social media on weekends.
  • Determine how much alone time you need each day, then schedule it if necessary, and defend it. I need at least an hour, more if my day is heavy on human interaction, intense busy work, or noise. I’ll tell my husband I’m going to meditate, cocoon, or nap, and he knows not to disturb me. And starting the morning with even 10 minutes of quiet time can set the tone for the day.
  • Use noise-canceling headphones or a white noise machine. My white noise machine helps to drown out my husband’s music when I’m trying to concentrate.
  • Text or email instead of calling on the phone. Obviously, this isn’t ideal for all communication, but sometimes texting or email is sufficient, efficient, and for me, less taxing.
  • Find or create a quiet niche. I used to write in the dining room, but my husband, who is retired, frequently wandered in to talk, forgetting that I was working. So recently, I asked hubs to drag an old desk down from the attic, move a few small pieces of furniture from our bedroom, and I set up shop in a small alcove there. A bonus: we’ll have our dining room table back! You don’t need much room for your niche. Kids often have time-out chairs. You can have a quiet-out chair.

For further reading, I recommend these two books: 

Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): The Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood by Julie Vick. A humorous and practical guide to managing family life as an introvert. I’d wished I’d had this when my sons were little!

The Highly Sensitive Parent by Elaine Aron, recommended by Julie Vick (above). I own Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Person, which I highly recommend, and I’m going to track down this book, too.

It’s never too late to honor who you are.

If your intense day-to-day parenting is behind you, it’s not too late to tend to your needs. Looking back on my active years of motherhood, I learn about myself now. I give myself permission now to be who I am. 

If my story rings true for you, I give you permission to be the most awesome orchid you are. Don’t try to be a dandelion. The more authentic you are, the more true to yourself, the better you’ll take care of yourself, and the brighter you’ll bloom.

By the way—that orchid my brother gave me in 2018? I do remember to water it—1/2 cup of warm H2O every week or two. It’s not only alive, it’s in almost constant bloom, proving that orchids—of the plant and human type—are tougher and more resilient than you think.

My 3 1/2-year-old orchid.

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Author

  • Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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