Menus Subscribe Search
harsh-parenting

(ILLUSTRATION: ANTON BRAND/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Bad Economic News Linked to Harsh Parenting

• August 05, 2013 • 12:00 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: ANTON BRAND/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research finds that anxiety caused by the 2008 economic crash led many mothers to switch to a less-nurturing parenting style.

The Great Recession has negatively impacted society in many different ways. Increased unemployment. Smaller paychecks. Higher levels of insecurity.

And now we can add: More episodes of maternal misbehavior.

Newly published research finds a link between mothering styles and economic conditions, which apparently degrade in tandem. A research team led by New York University sociologist Dohoon Lee reports the stress and worry caused by the 2008 crash led many mothers to have less patience with their kids.

“Harsh parenting was not positively associated with high levels of unemployment, but rather with increases in the unemployment rate and declines in consumer sentiment,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To Lee and his colleagues this suggests “the anticipation of adversity was a more important determinant of harsh parenting than actual exposure.”

Mothers engaged in significantly more harsh parenting behaviors following a 10 percent increase in their city’s unemployment rate.

The researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which tracked 4,898 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. The mothers (most of whom were single parents) were interviewed shortly after giving birth, and periodically over the next nine years.

During interviews conducted when their child was three, five, and nine years old, the mothers reported whether they utilized any of 10 harsh parenting techniques. Some of these involved corporal punishment (spanking, slapping, pinching, shaking), while others featured emotional abuse (yelling, swearing, threatening to kick the child out of the house). For each category, the mothers reported how often they had engaged in the behavior over the past year, on a scale from “never” to “more than 20 times.”

When the boy or girl was nine, saliva was collected from both mother and child for genetic testing. The researchers were interested in finding any link between parenting behavior and a few specific genetic markers.

Lee and his colleagues report bad economic news had a negative impact on maternal behavior. Specifically, mothers engaged in significantly more harsh parenting behaviors following a 10 percent increase in their city’s unemployment rate.

Unfortunately, this dynamic was not easily reversed: Improvements in the local economy “were associated with much smaller, statistically insignificant changes in harsh parenting,” they write.

These results were limited to the approximately 50 percent of the women studied—those who fit a specific genetic profile that makes them more sensitive to changes in their environment. Their genetic variation has been linked to poorer efficiency of the brain’s dopamine system, which regulates aggression and impulsivity.

For those who did not share that genetic profile, economic changes (good or bad) had “inconsistent and insignificant effects” on parenting. According to Columbia University’s Irwin Garfinkel, a co-author of the paper, this provides more evidence that some people are “orchids” who wilt in poor conditions, while others are “dandelions” who can survive no matter what.

Of course, that offers little solace to “orchids” who find themselves hitting their kids, or the children who suffer the emotional and physical consequences. As the researchers conclude: “These findings demonstrate the importance of attending to the non-economic costs of macroeconomic changes.”

It appears that many people—even loving mothers—respond to economic worries by literally and figuratively lashing out.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.