My friend Katherine and her husband adopted two foster siblings at ages 1 and 2.  It was a big change—going from a 2- to a 4-person family overnight.  They had so much to learn about parenting and about these particular children.  Like many previously in foster care, these kids had experienced early traumas.  I tried to be a sounding board for Katherine when she had so many decisions to make in short order.  But I also watched her getting to know her new children, and laying down the foundation from which they’d learn to trust her—doing many of the things that new biological parents do.  Only Katherine didn’t have the luxury to move slowly with one child who she’d been with since birth.    

Young Childhood

I remember Katherine would try to make things as predictable and understandable as possible for her toddlers—sometimes cutting out photos of things which she was explaining.  But over the years, I saw that Katherine’s biggest strength was her patience.

When the kids were in elementary school, it became clear that each had a learning disability, as well as attentional difficulties.  However, their learning challenges weren’t as straightforward as they are for some kids—those with dyslexia, for example.  It took Katherine years to decipher the cause of the learning problems in each child.  During those years Katherine was patient—frustrated at times and tired a lot—but persevering as she consulted various experts to help her understand her children’s struggles. 

Adolescence

Now these siblings are adolescents—rarely an easy phase for kids or parents.  But I can see how far they have come.  It’s probably harder for Katherine and her husband to see this since they’re so close to it all—and the kids are middle-schoolers so some of their positive attributes are buried for now—but they’ve clearly flourished.  The kids are interested in the world around them, able to talk comfortably with adults, playful, funny, and kind—and this description is from my kids who babysit them.   

Sensitive Children

Recently when my teens were talking about Katherine’s kids, I was reminded of some reading I’d done on sensitive children—kids who are extremely aware of, and affected by their environments.  Katherine has at least one and likely two “sensitive children.” 

Personally, I describe these kids as the ones parents worry about the most.  Researchers who study both children and primates—where some of the work on sensitive kids originated—describe sensitive children as having a genetic make-up that makes them more: anxious, fearful, fussy, whiny, prone to social anxiety, and unfocused. 

These are clearly not your mellow babies or exuberant and upbeat toddlers.  These are the kids you babysat as a teen, and left their home exhausted because they’d been crabby and fussy, and never settled on any activity for long.  They are the kids who don’t transition easily due to  overstimulation from their environments.  These are the children who are exceedingly sensitive to sounds, or as they get older, offhand comments from other children.  And don’t get me started about seeing movies they find scary.  Heck, my son Daniel would have nightmares after seeing the “scary book cover at the school book fair.”  Yes, I myself am somewhat familiar with sensitive children.  I have at least two of them, and possibly three. 

In The Confidence Code, authors Katty Kay and Claire Shipman mention that certain kids have a genetic predisposition to environmental sensitivity.  They interviewed primate researcher, Steve Suomi, who stated that though “some traits are inherited, it doesn’t mean they can’t be altered.”  His work has shown that if you put a naturally anxious and fearful baby rhesus monkey with a supportive foster mother monkey, that baby grows up to be highly social, able to turn to others for help, and often a social group leader. 

Orchid Children

This and other research has led scientists to dub these sensitive kids “orchid children.” 

According to researchers Bruce Ellis and W. Thomas Boyle, many children are “genetically like dandelions: hardy and able to thrive in various environments.”  For years we assumed that non-dandelion children—high-maintenance children—were the weak ones.  However, the “orchid theory” suggests that while sensitive “orchid” children may be more challenging to raise, if nurtured well they can excel even beyond their counterparts. 

A German study explored this concept in young children. It followed thousands of toddlers considered at risk, due to behaviors such as routine screaming, whining, and difficulty focusing. Researchers then taught their parents how to best work with these challenging kids.  All the children were also tested for a dopamine gene which causes high sensitivity to the environment and is linked to ADHD.  They found that although the entire group received positive parenting, the children with the sensitivity gene improved twice as much as those without the gene. 

Studies now suggest that strong, positive parenting can help sensitive kids throughout childhood.  The orchid theory posits that “genetically challenged” children raised with good parents “don’t just turn out fine, they actually excel. They thrive. They become stronger, healthier, and more confident than their peers.”  The natural sensitivity in these children makes them sponges in their environments.  While they have the potential to soak up “the worst” if they are in bad environments, they also have the potential to absorb “the best” if that’s what they are offered.   

As I’ve watched Katherine and her husband parent their kids over the past decade, I now see that I have been observing the orchid theory in action. 

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People Are the Priority

by Suzita on October 14, 2016

It was clear early on that my friend Christina’s daughter Ava was a bright girl.  She was one of those toddlers who spoke in eloquent sentences when my same-age son was struggling to put two words together.  Her parents were understandably impressed with her abilities.  Unlike other children who develop in fits and starts during their elementary years, Ava was a child to whom all things academic came naturally.

On the other hand, Ava never seemed particularly interested in other children.  As soon as she could read, she was usually more focused on our bookshelves than on running around with our kids.  Still, the adults in the room took notice of Ava’s ability to read at barely age four.  However, I also remember observing that unlike the other kids we saw regularly, Ava never learned my name.  She knew me only as Stephen and Daniel’s mother.  For such a smart child, this was a bit odd.  Ava seemed to see me as a vehicle for getting what she needed.  “Hey, can you get me that book?” or “I need some juice.” 

I wondered if having a kid like Ava, who was so impressive in her intellectual pursuits, allowed her parents to focus only on what was going well and forget to remind their daughter that other people in her life were a vital source of knowledge and connection for her. 

A Problem Arises

Ava’s family moved to Seattle when she was in fifth grade, and since then we have only been in touch sporadically.  Christina called me recently, though, to ask my advice on a few things that concerned her.  She mentioned that Ava had recently been rude when her grandparents visited.  Ava later told Christina that all her grandparents did was ask annoying questions about her life.  When I asked how school was, Christina said Ava continues to be a very academic kid, but she no longer enjoys school like she once did.  Ava’s a sophomore now and attends one of the best public high schools in her area, but tells her parents that school is boring.  She still gets good enough grades, but says most of her teachers are “stupid” and her classes seem pointless.

Wisdom Found

I found some advice for Ava’s parents in an unexpected place.  When Christina phoned, I happened to be reading 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, by Karl Pillemer.  Pillemer and his team interviewed 1000 elders with the average age of 78, though some were over 100.  He asked them to share what they had learned over their long lives regarding marriage, work, parenting, aging, and day-to-day living.  He then synthesized their interviews into 30 life lessons. 

Ava popped into my head when reading the section on work life—even though to my knowledge 15 year-old Ava has never worked for money.  Pillemer referred to the elders he interviewed as “experts” and noted that regarding work life the experts repeatedly emphasized: 

“No matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant—you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.  Many young people today are so focused on gaining technical expertise that they lose sight of this key to job success: traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolve conflict are fundamentals in the workplace.”

This piece of wisdom seemed to be one component of Ava’s problem.  She had always been overly focused on her own interests.  Her parents had set up a world where for the most part Ava didn’t need to interact with other people much to get what she wanted.  Again, with a child like Ava who hadn’t required much parental guidance, I wondered if her parents neglected to notice the areas Ava wasn’t so good at, such as working with others.  Over time Ava had built up such confidence in her intellectual abilities that it didn’t occur to her that other kids and adults had much to offer.  If her parents had spent more time helping Ava see what skills and lessons other people could teach her, they might have instilled an attitude of respect for the adults in her life such as her teachers.  Every child will have a few not-so-great teachers, but it’s hard to believe that Ava’s teachers are all bad and the majority of her classes useless.  

Another life lesson from the experts in Pillemer’s book was:  Make the most of a bad job.  This wisdom might be useful to Ava.  An 81 year-old man named Sam Winston summarized this lesson saying,

“I’ve had many different experiences throughout my life where I really didn’t like what I had to do and I would feel what I was doing was inconsequential.  But the lessons I learned doing those things played an important part in my life.  For example, I had to work my way through college, in many what you may consider meaningless jobs.  Later on they were very valuable for me as an employer, to help me understand my people.”

Sam Winston later explained lessons he learned from various people: 

“People are very important.  I have a saying that ‘There is some good in everyone.’  But there is an important corollary to that.  If nothing else, you can always say, ‘There’s a [person I will use as] a bad example.’…You can learn from everyone, no matter who it is.  No matter what their status, you can learn from them.”

Challenge This Worldview

Maybe the message Ava’s mom really needed to give her daughter was “you have unique gifts, but so does everyone else.”  Perhaps Ava’s parents should remind her that there are many types of intelligence—musical, visual-spatial, verbal, logical, kinesthetic-physical, interpersonal, intrapersonal—to help her understand and respect the variety of strengths those around her may possess.  Unfortunately societies which don’t value the wisdom of elders may be more likely to raise children with attitudes like Ava’s.  On the other hand, parents can always challenge this attitude in their kids when they see it.  I think “the experts” would agree.

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What Getting a Puppy Taught My Tween and Teens about Parenthood

August 31, 2016

As a family we fall on the late-adopter end of the spectrum.  This is challenging for our kids when it comes to owning the newest technology which I’m pretty sure we have none of in our home.  It’s been similar with pets.  After becoming a parent, I remember the sense of awe I had watching […]

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“I Got My First Paycheck!” The Value of Work in Kids’ Lives

April 17, 2015

  At breakfast one morning last summer, Stephen, our 15 year-old suggested, “Let’s all go hiking this weekend.  I have a trail I want you to see.  It’s the one we’ve been working on all week.” Stephen’s comment was notable for a couple of reasons. For one thing, 15 year-old boys don’t tend to enjoy […]

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One Solution to the High Price of Big Kid Activities

January 29, 2015

A little over a year ago, Todd and I were having one of our monthly check-ins about family finances, and we came to the unfortunate realization that our family had more money going out than coming in. Ouch. The previous month we’d targeted a number of areas in which to reduce spending (cable, some organic […]

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How Family Meetings Look at our House

October 2, 2014

Summer is definitely over.  Sometimes it feels like we have four seasons in our family – winter, spring, summer, and chaos – or back to school season.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it when my kids return to school, and for the most part they do as well.  But for the last 2 years […]

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Sharing Vulnerability with Kids

February 14, 2014

Vulnerability.  That feeling of being completely exposed, clueless, clumsy in front of others.  Our kids may be better at vulnerability than we adults are.  Growing up requires them (forces them) to learn new skills and experience novel situations all the time.  Heck, every school year is like learning the ropes of a new job with […]

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How a Child Gets from Boredom to Creativity

October 25, 2013

I love the concept that a bored child, if left alone, eventually finds his or her way to creativity.  Whenever I read about this, as a mom I am filled with renewed hope and energy. “I’m going to let the kids be bored!  I can do this.  By the end of today, great things will […]

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Alaska Impressions

September 5, 2013

    “Mama, I’m going to walk in front with the ranger!  I want to hear her tell which berries I can eat.  Oh, and did you see how big the bald eagle’s nest was?!  I spotted the baby birds inside,” Daniel, my 13 year-old, rapidly informed me as he ran ahead along the beach […]

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“You need to talk more in class.” Introverted Kids in Today’s Schools

April 18, 2013

Ashley is an 11 year-old who lives in our neighborhood.  She’s soft-spoken and curious.  Her big brown eyes constantly take in the world around her.  A while back I bumped into Ashley’s mother and we got to talking.  I asked how Ashley’s transition to middle school had gone this year, since our son Daniel had […]

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