Do Bad Economics Lead to Bad Parents?

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Sure, the Great Recession impacted buying habits and the unemployment rate…but parenting? A new study says yes: Anticipation of poor economic times may make women parent more harshly than they would otherwise.

An analysis published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that some women responded to the economic downturn by adopting a more aggressive parenting style. And women who are predisposed to react aggressively because of a genetic variant were most likely to exhibit a harsher response.

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Researchers used surveys from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a study of 4,898 American children. Parents were interviewed five times during the course of nine years, and were asked questions about psychological harsh parenting and corporal punishment.

During the years of the recession from 2007-2009, researchers noted a link between harsh parenting and macroeconomic conditions. While the behavior seemed to be linked to the possibility of lean times ahead, it wasn’t linked to current conditions.

Improvement in economic conditions was associated to a much lesser degree with improvement in parenting style. Even monkeys parent less well when foraging in poorer environments, the researchers note.

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“Stress may result not only from the actual experience of adversity but also from uncertainty and the anticipation of adversity,” the researchers wrote. “Mother monkeys parent less well — and their offspring do less well — when foraging in poor environments compared with rich environments. However, both mothers and offspring do worst when poor and rich environments are varied randomly, suggesting that uncertainty or insecurity may be more stressful than the actual experience of adversity. Among humans, anticipation of adverse events with high salience is thought to elicit stress or anxiety as well as changes in decision making, risk aversion, and aggression.”

The findings point to the importance of understanding noneconomic impact of macroeconomic changes, the researchers note.

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