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Harsher Mothering in Tough Times

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Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (TC file photo)

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (TC file photo)

Mothers are likelier to use harsh discipline in economically uncertain times, according to studies published last year by TC’s Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and co-authors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Child Abuse and Neglect.

Analysis of data from the Fragile Families and Child Well¬being Study, which follows children born in large American cities from 1998–2000, found that with consumer confidence waning at the start of the recent recession, the proportion of U.S. mothers frequently spanking their children grew from approximately 2 percent to 8 percent. Fear of economic uncertainty seemed to affect these mothers more than did actual economic distress.

TC Today
spoke with Brooks- Gunn, Virginia and Leonard Marx Professor of Child Development and Education and Co-director of TC’s National Center for Children and Families.

TC Today:
What are the “orchid” and “dandelion” parents mentioned in the studies?

Brooks-Gunn: Some individuals seem more sensitive to environmental changes due to variation in allele patterns for each gene marker. We call them “orchids” because they do poorly in difficult environments but thrive in good ones. “Dandelions” are less susceptible to environmental variations, though obviously extreme variations are not good for anyone.

TC Today: Should we excuse genetically predisposed moms for spanking their children more during high stress?

Brooks-Gunn: The issue isn’t about blame. We’re all products of the exquisite interaction between nature and nurture, which goes on from conception to death. By looking simultaneously at biology on the one hand, and environment and experience on the other, we can more precisely explain variations in an individual’s life course. Changing policies to reduce maternal stress would help all children. In fact, home visiting and early education programs do just that.

TC Today: During economically uncertain times, should we step up child-protection services and other supports?

Brooks-Gunn: Our work associates economic downturns with rises in harsh parenting. Other research has shown that children’s head trauma and use of emergency medical services increase in recessions. So, yes, these findings highlight the need to provide unemployment benefits, food stamps, health care and job training for parents.

Patricia Lamiell


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