SWM-002: Orchid vs Dandelion Parenting in the Wake of the Great Recession, with Professor Irv Garfinkel

September 25, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

Social Work Matters podcast coverCommunications Director Mary-Lea Cox Awanohara interviews Irwin Garfinkel, Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems, about his recently released study on harsh parenting included data on mothers who are “orchids” or “dandelions” depending on which version they carry of DRD4, the dopamine-regulating gene.



  • Professor Garfinkel was one of the researchers in the consortium that recently released findings based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS), a population-based, birth cohort study conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. Mothers were interviewed shortly after giving birth and when the child was approximately 1, 3, 5 and 9 years old. Data on harsh parenting were collected when the child was 3, 5 and 9 years old. In Year 9, saliva DNA samples were collected from 2,600 mothers and children.
  • Harsh parenting was measured using 10 items from the commonly used Conflict Tactics Scale—five items measured psychological harsh parenting (e.g., shouting, threatening, etc.) and five gauged corporal punishment (e.g., spanking, slapping).
  • The researchers supplemented these data with measurements of economic conditions in each of the 20 cities where the FFS mothers lived. Specifically, they examined city-level data on monthly unemployment rates, obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Local Area Unemployment Statistics, and the Consumer Sentiment Index, obtained from the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.
  • In their analysis, they controlled for age, race/ethnicity, immigration status, educational attainment, poverty status, family structure, and child gender and child age (in months) at the time of interview.
  • The fear of being unemployed—when people are scared of what is going to happen to them—promotes harsh parenting, not the poor conditions themselves, or actual unemployment. Parents are more likely to respond with fear if there is a rapid increase in the unemployment rate and/or decline in consumer confidence.
  • The researchers also sought to determine if the response varied by genetic make-up. It turns out that in harsh environments, people who produce less dopamine—whom scientists refer to as “orchids”—were significantly more likely to engage in harsh parenting. But there is another side of the coin, which is that sensitive orchids are more likely to flourish in high-quality, supportive environments. In contrast, those who produce more dopamine, known as “dandelions,” are not as much affected by the world around them, whether supportive or harsh. They are survivors.
  • The findings first appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).