Recession-sensitive parenting

Child rearing by mothers with gene variant became more aggressive

LAS VEGAS — Recent economic woes in the United States may have triggered a temporary upturn in the use of harsh parenting methods by mothers carrying a particular gene variant.

Mothers who inherited either one or two copies of a particular form of the dopamine D2 receptor gene, dubbed DRD2, cited sharp rises in spanking, yelling and other aggressive parenting methods for six to seven months after the onset of the economic recession in December 2007, sociologist Dohoon Lee of New York University reported August 22 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting.

Hard-line child-rearing approaches then declined for a few months and remained stable until a second drop to pre-recession levels started around June 2009, the research showed.

Mothers who didn’t inherit the gene variant displayed no upsurge in aggressive parenting styles after the recession started, Lee and his colleagues found.

As the recession progressed, mothers with the critical DRD2 variant apparently adjusted to tougher economic times enough to allow for a return to pre-recession parenting practices, Lee proposes.

Economic uncertainty may prompt harsh parenting in genetically predisposed individuals as much as economic hardship and poverty do, Lee said.

His findings reveal one potential genetic pathway by which large-scale economic developments affect child-rearing styles, remarked sociologist Yang Yang of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She adds that further research is needed to confirm that mothers who treated their kids more harshly in response to the recession gradually adjusted to new economic realities and thus became less aggressive parents.

The same DRD2 gene variant that Lee and colleagues linked to harsher parenting during the recession has previously been tied to a propensity for violence, alcoholism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and several other psychiatric conditions. Still, other research questions whether any link exists between DRD2 and mental ailments.

Lee’s team analyzed survey responses obtained monthly between August 2007 and February 2010 from 4,898 mothers whose children were around age 9 at the study’s start. Participants lived in any of 20 U.S. cities. DNA had been obtained earlier from mothers as part of a long-term investigation of parenting and child development.

Carriers of genes such as the critical DRD2 variant in Lee’s study may blossom in positive environments and wither in negative environments (SN Online: 4/6/11), commented sociologist Ronald Simons of the University of Georgia in Athens. It remains to be seen whether mothers who reacted more punitively toward their children after the recession began will show a spike in warm parenting methods when — or if — flush economic times return.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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