“Racehorses”: An Issue of Temperament

Although I have written about this before, I am revisiting the issue of “orchid” in contrast with “dandelion” children, or what I typically call “race horses”. These are “high reactive” children who are temperamentally sensitive. In India my students have referred to them as “rose children” in contrast with “grass children”. Jerome Kagan is famous for identifying this group of 10-20% of the normal population who are “slow to warm up” to novelty – strange people and experiences (Kagan, 1998, pp. 70-76). They are like the children who clung to their mothers when the experimenter introduced the robot in Kagan and Snidman’s lab (Kagan, Snidman et al, 2018). These children are wonderful – in fact, I am partial to them because they tend to be so interesting and are often very creative – but they are much harder to parent. 

I recently consulted to a lovely family with a 3-yo who was definitely a “race horse”. She was beautiful and articulate and an amazing pretend player with her parents, who were great at scaffolding her play. However, when I invited her to join me in play, while her parents sat in two chairs in the same room, she clung to her father and refused. The parents’ response was so helpful that I showed it to them on videotape, and I wanted to capture it for the sake of other parents.

After my invitation, when the girl clung to her father, her mother first lay down the expectation – “Daddy is going to stay right here, and you are going to play with Alex.” Despite the fact that the girl maintained her iron grip on her dad, the mother’s articulation of the expectation was crucial. Also helpful was the way both parents worked together – neither undercut the other by taking over or by criticizing the other’s actions. As I began a pretend play that interested her, the child pulled her father from his chair towards the play area on the rug. At first he resisted, but I encouraged him to accompany her, and he lay on the floor near his little daughter while she enthusiastically joined me in play. 

When I showed the video to her parents I suggested that they keep a mental image of this experience of scaffolding their child through her anxiety about a stranger, to her successful engagement in play. In two steps – the clear articulation of the expectation, and the (in this case physical) presence of a parent during the transition, they made it possible for their little racehorse to enjoy a game with a new person. Her pride at this mastery experience was demonstrated the next day when she told her teacher, unprompted, “I went to Alex’s house. It was fun!” Her parents will have many chances to repeat this scaffolding during her lifetime. I can imagine them taking her to college – telling her that they are going to leave at a certain point, allowing her to cling while they help her set up her room, maybe even spending the night in a hotel nearby the first night, making sure she connects with her roommate, etc, to ease the transition. 

Where do racehorses come from? Generally speaking, temperament is inherited. That means that high reactive parents tend to produce high reactive children. However, it is not only the DNA that is passed on to the children. We have seen in other postings (cite) that epigenetic changes also are inherited. Epigenetic changes are the way the environment influences the genome. For example, trauma in the life of a parent may affect the structure of the methyl groups sitting on top of the parent’s DNA and impact how the gene is turned on and off Epigenesis accounts in part for how trauma is transmitted across generations. Grandchildren of Holocaust survivors often showed signs of disturbance in their stress regulation. The general feature of this transmission of trauma is lowering the threshold for stress reactivity. 

Kagan J (1998). Three Seductive Ideas, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 

Kagan J, Snidman N, Arcus D, Reznick J (2018). Galen’s prophecy:           Temperament in human nature, New York:Routledge.

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