Just over ten years ago, a fascinating journal article argued that some children are like orchids – they don’t just wither in response to a harsh upbringing, they also flourish in a positive environment, unlike their “dandelion” peers who are less affected either way. Since then, research into this concept has exploded. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin usefully gathers all that we know so far about one key aspect of this – the associations between children’s temperament (the forerunner to adult personality) and the way they respond to different parenting styles. The results suggest that those with a particular kind of highly emotional temperament are more likely to match the description of an orchid child*.
Meike Slagt and her colleagues surveyed all the relevant research published prior to 2015 into the interactions between children’s temperament, parenting styles and various developmental outcomes, from behavioral problems to school performance. They found 84 relevant studies – half of them published since 2010 – involving tens of thousands of children.
In theory, there are three main ways that child temperament could interact with parenting style, and the researchers were particularly concerned with finding out which was best supported by the available data.
It’s possible that some children are especially vulnerable to a harsh upbringing (cold and authoritarian), but no more or less affected by a positive upbringing (warm and authoritative). Alternatively, in line with the orchid concept, some children could be extra sensitive to bad and good parenting. Finally, it may be that there are some children with a particular temperament who especially benefit from a positive upbringing, but who are no more or less vulnerable to a negative upbringing.
In fact, the data supported the orchid concept. Some children with a certain temperament seem to be especially sensitive to both bad and good parenting, suffering more when things are harsh, but also thriving more than usual in a positive environment. These children seemed to gain as much from a positive upbringing as they suffered from a bad one.