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Compassion + Science

The Education of Orchids and Dandelions: It's Nature with Nurture

by Dr. Chris Kukk

Intellectual and emotional success comes from nature interacting with nurture. Understanding how nature interacts with nurture should be the cornerstone for building intellectual and social development of all children.  The traditional debate of nature versus nurture is a red herring that inhibits the making of constructive policies that strengthen our communities.

Researchers who focus upon the gene known as DRD4 (a dopamine processing gene) show that there is a reciprocal relationship between a person’s biological makeup (nature) and his or her environmental surroundings (nurture).  DRD4 researchers label children with the “long variant” (low production of dopamine) of the gene as “orchids” and others as “dandelions.” While dandelion children can adapt and develop in any type of cultural and socio-economic environment, orchid children are “context-sensitive,” according to an article in Current Directions in Psychological Science by Bruce J. Ellis and W. Thomas Boyce, in that their “survival and flourishing is intimately tied, like that of the orchid, to the nurturant or neglectful character of the environment.”

Various peer-reviewed studies clearly demonstrate that negative and uncompassionate home and school environments hurt the social-emotional and intellectual development of orchid children but have minimal to no effect on dandelions.  However, the studies also show an amazing effect that compassionate and positive (compasitive) homes and schools have on both orchids and dandelions: while both orchids and dandelions succeed in a compasitive environment, the orchids thrive to such an extent that they surpass the dandelion children in social-emotional and intellectual learning.  In other words, compassionate and positive home and classroom environments help all children succeed and they turn a potential learning deficit into an asset.  Research in the field of child development not only shows that the nature versus nurture debate is not useful but that a combination of nature with nurture can unlock hidden potential in every child.

Reading recent articles in The New York Times and The Economist about the establishment of curfews in American cities as well as the spread of “bratophobia” in various parts of the country where children are being “barred” from bars and restaurants immediately brought to mind the studies of DRD4 researchers.  The articles remind me of the American tendency to react rather than prevent problems from arising.  DRD4 research, in contrast, highlights the role that science can play in helping us to create policies that avoid problems.  While we tend to think that some children are naturally “brats” and others are naturally “good,” DRD4 studies clearly show that we can create conditions where all children flourish.  Imagine, for example, classrooms where learning happens in a compasitive environment rather than classrooms as testing centers where darkened ovals are considered the measure of an education.  Should we be focused on developing policies that exclude or include children?  Which is better for strengthening our communities? ARTICLES: The bratophobia and curfew articles are:

  • Baltimore Joins Cities Toughening Curfews, Citing Safety but Eliciting Concern (Emma G. Fitzsimmons, The New York Times, June 22, 2014)
  • Nippers Not Wanted (The Economist, June 21, 2014)


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