Monthly Archives: July 2012

Orchids or Racehorses


Orchids and Racehorses

In the conference I attended this week in Paris, IACAPAP, I heard many stimulating presentations; I will probably write about some of them in the coming weeks. One that comes immediately to mind was by a researcher named Marius van Ijzendoorn, from Leiden.  

He was talking about how in the age-old Nature-Nurture debate we need to move back to taking Nature more seriously (Belsky & Pluess, 2009).  (In addition to Dr. van Ijzendoorn’s presentation, I derived much of the information in this blog from the important paper of Belsky and Pluess noted above. A wonderful discovery was that many of the papers cited in this paper were available on the internet free of charge.) That is not to say that Nurture is not important – far from it – but that Nature prepares children to respond differentially to the nurture they are given, and that the kind of differential responses we are talking about is not that simple. That was an interesting idea to me. It fit with something I have been telling parents for many years.

I also have noticed an implicit presumption made by much of the research into the environmental influences on early development. The presumption is that all children are affected equally by adverse environmental circumstances – whether poverty, maternal insensitivity, neglect, abuse, etc. This is evident in the studies of children reared in institutions, for example (Bos et al, 2011) (Cicchetti & Rogosh, 1997). 

When attention has been paid to individual child characteristics that contribute to the outcome, it is usually to say either that some children are relatively more constitutionally vulnerable to adverse environmental factors, or that other children – the lucky resilient ones – are less vulnerable. These resilient children are distinguished by – among other things – having a high IQ, a sense of humor, or a mentor to support their healthy development in ways that their parents are unable to do (Garmezy, 1985), (Rutter, 1987), (Werner, 1997). 

Another way of looking at it is to focus on “plasticity”. Children who are “resilient” are less plastic, or malleable, in relation to their experiences with the environment than others (Belsky and Pluess, 2009, p. 345).  What comprises this “plasticity”? In general, it seems that individual children differ in terms of three important markers of differential susceptibility, or plasticity – (1) early temperament; (2) physiological reactivity; and (3) genes. 

What van Izjendoorn and others have proposed is that instead of assuming all children are equally affected by adverse life circumstances, or that some individual children are particularly vulnerable or resilient because of their constitutions, we should consider a new paradigm – that of differential susceptibility (Belsky, 1997) or biological sensitivity to context (Ellis & Boyce, 2008).  This new proposal contends that for temperamental, physiological reasons, some children actually are more susceptible than others to both positive and negative rearing influences (Belsky, Bakermans-K, & van Ijzendoorn, 2007).  Belsky suggest that from an evolutionary point of view it was more advantageous for parents to bear children varying in plasticity, given that our ancestral parents could not have known any more than we know (despite the dogmatic trends in theories of parenting) which child rearing practices would be the most successful in promoting the reproductive fitness of their offspring. That way, if one child rearing technique proved to be problematic, those children who were not strongly affected by parental behaviors would not be adversely affected. 

From the perspective of temperament, two recent studies cited in Belsky & Pluess, found that infants with difficult temperament at 6 months (rated by their mothers)had both more behavior problems in early childhood in conditions of “low quality”, but also display fewer problems and more social skills than other children in conditions of “high quality” caregiving (Belsky & Pluess, 2009, p. 347).

 From the point of view of biological sensibility, children showing high reactivity (blood pressure) during a stress test had higher rates of respiratory illness, while when they were in low stress conditions had a significantly lower incidence of respiratory illness (cited in Boyce & Pluess, 2009, p. 347). In an interesting study by Boyce et al, when 7- year old children scored low in reactivity as indexed by salivary cortisol at the beginning of a stressful evaluation, father involvement in their care failed to predict mental health at age 9, whereas if they were high reactive, low levels of father involvement did predict mental health problems at that age (Boyce et al, 2006). 

As mentioned, genes also feature as a marker of differential susceptibility. In two studies,  Caspi et al, and Taylor et al, found that university students homozygous for short alleles of the serotonin transporter gene polymorphism showed greater depressive symptoms when exposed to early or recent adversity than did individuals with the other allelic variants, but individuals with this apparently vulnerable genotype showed significantly less depressive symptomatology when they experienced a supportive early environment or recent positive experience (cited in Belsky & Pluess, 2009, p. 347). 

What does all this mean to caregivers? Well, what I often tell the parents in my practice is that their children are “race horses” – that they need specialized care but they also have special potential. Then I do my best to help the parents learn how to provide that specialized care. The metaphor van Ijzendoorn used was orchids versus dandelions. He said that orchids (high susceptibility) need specialized care to bloom, but they are prized for their beauty, whereas dandelions (the “resilient” ones) can bloom anywhere but are usually not considered as beautiful. Actually, van Izjendoorn did not devalue dandelions and mentioned some interesting reasons having to with genetic studies that he is partial to them. The real message to my mind, though, is the hopeful one. If you have a child with high susceptibility to environmental influence, it is possible to create a caregiving environment that can support his or her growth in a positive way and produce a racehorse, an orchid. And dandelions are also beautiful, as my French friend, Gisele, explained, they are the first flowers that appear in her French garden as harbingers of Spring.  


Bakermans-Kranenburg & van Ijzendoorn, (2008). Oxytocin receptor (OXTR) and serotonin transporter (5-HTT) genes associated with observed parenting, Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci, 3(2):128-134.

Belsky, J. (1997). Variation in susceptibility to rearing influences: An evolutionary argument. Psychological Inquiry, 8:182-186.

Belsky, J, & Pluess, M, (2009). The nature (and nurture?) of plasticity in human development, Assoc for Psychological Science, 4 (4): 345-351.

Belsky, J., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. & van Ijzendoorn, M. (2007). For better or worse: Differential susceptibility to environmentalinfluences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6):300-304.

Bos, K, Zeanah, C, Fox, N, Drury, S, McLaughlin, K, & Nelson, C (2011). Psychiatric outcomes inyoung children with a history of institutionalization, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 15-24.

Boyce, T., Chesney, M, Alkon, A., Tschann, J, Adams, S, Chesterman, B, Cohen, F, Kaiser, P, Folkman, S, & Wara, D, (1995), Psychobiological reactivity to stress and childhood respiratory illness: Results of two prospective studies, Psychosomatic Medicine 57:411-422.

Boyce, T., Essex, M., Alkon, A., Goldsmith, H., Kramer, H., Kupfer, D. (2006). Early father involvement moderates biobehavioral susceptivility to mental health problems in middle childhood, JAACAP, 45:1510-1520.

Cicchetti, D., & Rogosh, F. A. (1997). The role of self-organization in the promotion of resilience in maltreated children. Development and Psychopathology, 9: 797-815.

Ellis, B. & Boyce, W (2008), Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3):183-187. 

Garmezy, N. (1985) Stress resistant children: The search for protective factors. In J.E. Stevenson, ed., Recent research in developmental psychopathology, 220-227.

Rutter, M. (1987). Psychosocial resilience and protective mechanisms, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 57:51-72. 

Werner, E. (1993) Risk, resilience, and recovery: Perspectives from the Kauai longitudinal study, Development and Psychopathology 5:503-515.


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Some Thoughts About Culture


Our IPMH group has been having an extensive and interesting discussion about culture on email. I have been traveling and it has been hard for me to follow all of it on my blackberry, but I thought I would offer some thoughts. It refers to caregivers in that we often forget to figure in culture to our caregiving practices and aspirations. Recent writings in the popular press about Chinese and French child rearing have made many American parents doubt themselves. Of course, every path chosen in life leaves another untaken, and every advantage that a particular culture offers also has a price. 

I just returned from Normandy, where I attended the wedding of the son of my best childhood friend. It was like stepping out of my life and into a French movie and then back into my life again. I got the thrill that I often get when I am part inside and part outside a life that is not my own. One of the visual memories I have of this experience is that of looking across a room of 82 people, gathered around one big table and several smaller ones, talking. There was something in their animation that struck me, and in the fact that whereas the group included young intellectuals in academic and professional careers, middle-aged tradespeople, retired teachers, one nun, one very old grandmother in a wheel chair, and about a dozen children, I had the impression that they were all leaning forward in their chairs and talking happily. Of course, this was a lovely group of people, and it was a happy occasion, but they were also French, and the French love to talk. They love their language. I would say that is probably the anchor of their culture. 

There were several other observations that I made about culture during those two days of the wedding celebrations. The first was about children. The children were quite noisy during the ceremony at the church. They talked and squawked, and no one seemed to care. But what was remarkable was how the children behaved during the dinner after the wedding. The dinner began at 8:00 pm., and there were many children at the dinner, including an infant and several preschoolers. A not quite 3-year old was sitting next to me. He maybe was the one exception to my previous description of people talking happily. At the beginning of the dinner I wondered how long he would last. I tried to make friends with him, but he shrank away from me. Later (just to underscore what I said about language) someone explained to me that his initial rejection of me was probably because of my accent. He was doing little provocative things like poking the straw from his drink into each piece of bread in the breadbasket on the table near him. His parents were all over him about it, correcting him, telling him to be good, but they didn’t seem very upset. They just kept telling him to behave over and over again, in a way that punctuated but didn’t seem to interrupt their conversation with their friends. Finally he just stopped doing little naughty things and started to amuse himself in various innocuous ways. By the end of the dinner at 1:30 am, he was sagging a little, but he was still awake.  When people were saying good night, at the coaching of his parents, he even offered me his little fat cheeks to kiss goodbye. We were not necessarily friends, but not enemies. 

The second observation I made was the next afternoon when we all came together again for lunch. I noticed that the first thing everyone said in greeting after hello was, “Did you sleep well?” (“T’as bien dormi?”) Now, that isn’t surprising, since we all had been up very late the night before. I noticed that it wasn’t just that people were speaking simply to me because they didn’t know the extent of my French, because they were asking one another the same question. It seemed that there was something facilitating, even comforting about the convention of asking this question, as if it were part of a song that we all knew. Again, language was key. 

The last observation was about the goodbyes. Probably many Americans have remarked on “the French goodbye”. It seems to us as if it goes on forever. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the French, who value their language so highly, should use it to soothe the pain of parting. As an American, you have to be prepared, you have to realize that when a French person first says goodbye, he doesn’t really mean goodbye. He means that he is beginning to say goodbye. 

How do all these observations come together into a more general consideration about culture? I realize that my comments are coming from a naïve point of view and that many have surely studied this phenomenon and written about it more knowledgeably, but I would guess it has something to do with the place of language in French culture. And as we know, language development begins very early in a child’s life – not necessarily words and symbols, but the aspects of language I am talking about. That is, the tones, the rhythms, the “sense” of communicating and probably even the “sense of what is being communicated”, through the matching of affect and actions with the words. So that when the parents of the 2-year old persistently corrected him verbally without ever giving him the impression that his leaving was an option, they were teaching him how to stay at the table. I am not suggesting that his parents were teaching him patience; I do not necessarily consider patience to be a French virtue, but staying at the table is. I am also not suggesting that all French 2-year olds could stay at the table that long and that late, but since they have been immersed in that culture from birth or before, many can.  To return to my original point about culture, I suppose that the advantage of being able to stay at the table carries a price too, but I can’t for the moment think of what it would be.