Over at the Times Magazine Motherlode blog, Lisa Belkin ran a short post about my Atlantic “Orchid Children” piece a couple days ago, and some of the responses she got strike to an issue that has come up quite a few other places. I posted a note on this at Motherlode, and wanted to expand on it a bit here as well. This is the first what may be several posts of the “FAQ” sort examining reader or blogger concerns.
In this case, the concern dominating the Motherlode commenter thread responses, and in a few other places as well, is whether the “Orchid Children” of my title are what many people call “gifted” children (defined roughly as very smart kids who have behavioral issues requiring some special handling). The short answer to this question — that is, whether by “orchid children” I mean smart-but-difficult — is No.
The hypothesis examined in the article is about temperament, not intelligence. And although it is obviously a work-in-progress (we are talking about an emerging hypothesis, after all), the presumption is that the greater temperamental and behavioral plasticity created by these especially plastic ‘orchid’ gene variants is largely separate from the effects of genetic factors affecting raw cognitive assets. Having the more plastic serotonin transporter gene, for instance, will make you either more or less susceptible to depression depending on your experience, but it does not make you smarter (or less smart). Likewise with other genes affecting attention/distractibility or aggression/sociability. In fact, as one Motherlode commenter pointed out, strong cognitive assets are generally protective against mood and behavioral disorders, not risk factors for same.)
So, no, the ‘orchid-y’ does not mean ‘gifted.’ A difficult person who’s smarter than average may behave differently than he would if he were less intelligent; his difficult behaviors might be more complex. But, by this hypothesis, anyway, he’s not difficult because he’s smart.
Yet I’ve seen not just on this Motherlode thread but elsewhere that a lot of people tend to conflate these issues of temperament and intelligence. This conflation is understandable, I guess, given the prevalance and power of the idea of a problematic “giftedness” in our culture. But it misses the essence of what this hypothesis is about.
I suppose I should have seen this coming. We all tend to press our existing frames for the world on anything unfamiliar. And that’s all the more likely if your conception of a complicated, multdimensional dynamic is drawn from a 700-word blog synopsis of a 7,200-word article that was itself damn near too short for the job. In any case, this speaks to the difficulty of finding a frame or metaphor that can replace one over-simplistic paradigm (these certain gene variants confer only a downside) without being co-opted by another (that some difficult children are difficult because they’re smart).
Comments? Chime in here. And you may want to check in on the interesting post and comments at Motherlode as well.