Better than average? Parental competence beliefs and socioeconomic background

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  • 1 University of Exeter, , UK
  • | 2 University of Bristol, , UK
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This article investigates the extent to which parents believe they are better than average parents using data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. The article builds on a long tradition of sociological research focusing on the interconnections between parenting, class, education and inequality. We find that mothers with low levels of education are more likely to say they are average or worse than average parents. Relatedly, we show that those who are highly educated are more likely to consider themselves as being better than average, even when a range of child and mother characteristics such as mother’s mental health and child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development are considered. These findings are linked to research showing how certain groups of parents are stigmatised or valorised in popular and political discourse. Our article also extends scholarship by examining the connection between parental mental health and parental competence beliefs.

Abstract

This article investigates the extent to which parents believe they are better than average parents using data from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. The article builds on a long tradition of sociological research focusing on the interconnections between parenting, class, education and inequality. We find that mothers with low levels of education are more likely to say they are average or worse than average parents. Relatedly, we show that those who are highly educated are more likely to consider themselves as being better than average, even when a range of child and mother characteristics such as mother’s mental health and child’s cognitive and socio-emotional development are considered. These findings are linked to research showing how certain groups of parents are stigmatised or valorised in popular and political discourse. Our article also extends scholarship by examining the connection between parental mental health and parental competence beliefs.

Introduction

Parenthood can be wonderful, challenging, and exhausting. It also provides many people with a deep sense of meaning and purpose (Hansen T, 2012). Becoming a parent can also alter our social worlds: it can be socially isolating, disrupt or deepen existing relationships, and expand people’s social networks. Does it make you happier? The evidence is rather mixed and depends on where in the world you live (Stanca, 2012; Glass et al, 2016; Musick et al, 2016). There is a lot to figure out – everything from how to hold an infant, to helping a child talk, read and make friends. Many parents will at some point reflect on whether they are getting it right, whatever that would mean, and ways in which they could be a better parent. As we are social creatures who routinely compare ourselves to other people, we may also ask ourselves not only if we are good parents but whether we are better or worse at parenting than other people.

Such socially comparative beliefs are the focus of this article. We investigate the extent to which parents in the UK believe that they are better than average parents. In particular, we are interested in how these beliefs are related to parents’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Are more highly educated parents and those in professional occupations more likely to say they are better than average? In answering these questions, we develop a novel theoretical framework that draws on insights from a range of disciplines and bridges currently unconnected literatures in sociology and social psychology. With this interdisciplinary framework in hand, we analyse parental competence beliefs using large-scale data from the Millennium Cohort Study in the UK. The main respondent in the survey is almost always the mother; it is important to note, therefore, that our analysis focuses on mothers’ beliefs. Our empirical and theoretical approach offers new insights into the formation of parental competence beliefs, why they might differ between social and economic groups, and highlights the importance of focusing on the socially comparative nature of parents’ beliefs.

We study comparative parental competence beliefs for three principle reasons. First, people’s beliefs about whether they are better than average parents are likely to be connected to broader educational and social inequalities; in particular, they are likely to reflect how parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds internalise broader cultural framings about who is assumed to be a ‘good’ parent (May, 2008; Elliott et al, 2015). Popular discourse regularly labels working-class parents and young mothers as deficient; this makes them a target for both moral condemnation and policies designed to make them ‘better’ parents (Gillies, 2007; 2008; Dermott and Yamashita, 2014). Sociological work has powerfully shown that stigmatisation, and how social groups are framed in positive and negative terms according to their location in socioeconomic and racial hierarchies, plays a key role in legitimating and generating inequalities (Skeggs, 2004; Lamont et al, 2014; 2016; Tyler and Slater, 2018). Studies have also traced how middle-class parents increasingly engage in ‘intensive mothering’ and competitive ‘helicopter parenting’ in order to mitigate against downward social mobility (Lareau, 2011; Francis, 2012; Shirani et al, 2012; Vincent, 2017). Contemporary parenting and economic inequalities may therefore be fuelling invidious social comparisons between parents that generate anxiety, competitiveness and feelings of inadequacy.

Second, what people think about themselves as parents is relevant to various areas of scholarship concerned with parental wellbeing, mental health and child outcomes including educational attainment. Evidence suggests that parental self-efficacy – a belief in one’s own abilities to parent – is associated with lower levels of maternal depression and positive educational and socio-emotional outcomes for children (Jones and Prinz, 2005; Kohlhoff and Barnett, 2013). There is also clear evidence of socioeconomic gradients in parental mental health problems (Lorant et al, 2007; Hoebel et al, 2017). A key contribution we make is to take a more sociological approach to parental competence beliefs: although the association between mental health problems and parental self-efficacy is well known, there is little research on the relationship between mental health and more socially comparative parental competence beliefs.

Third, in recent decades governments in the UK and elsewhere have positioned parents and the family as both a source of social ills and as key actors in projects of national renewal; they have, therefore, become a somewhat obsessive target for policy interventions (Gillies, 2007; Lee et al, 2014; Jensen, 2018; Maithreyi and Sriprakash, 2018). This has resulted in greater levels of state involvement in various aspects of family life and a shift in what we might call the moral economy of parenting (see Vincent, 2017: 542). Politicians from across the political spectrum have expressed concern about the negative effect of poor parenting on educational, social and economic outcomes. Often moralising in tone, this concern is generally aimed at working-class and economically marginalised parents and racialised minorities (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson, 2014). In the UK, under successive New Labour governments, parents were firmly placed at the centre of policy agendas relating to education and poverty (Eisenstadt and Oppenheim, 2019). Later, and in the context of the severe social and economic dislocation created by austerity, David Cameron focused on so-called ‘troubled families’ and introducing ‘universal’ parenting classes. Therefore, the UK is a theoretically interesting case of how ‘good parenting’ is tied up with broader processes of welfare state retrenchment and neoliberal governance that emphasise personal responsibility at the same time as economic inequalities have increased. By identifying who sees themselves as better or worse than average as parents, we provide important empirical evidence that can inform broader debates, policies and interventions focused on parenting and education in the UK and beyond.

In the next part of the article, we discuss a range of empirical research that helps us to understand the relationship between parents’ beliefs that they are better than average parents and their socioeconomic status. We then discuss our data, modelling strategy and present our results.

Parenting, class and educational inequality

A key motivation for this article is to understand why parents from different socioeconomic backgrounds might assess their abilities in different ways and why parents from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and those with higher levels of education, may be more likely to claim they are better than average parents. A rich body of sociological research can help to illuminate these issues. For example, sociological research has highlighted how parents’ sense of value and self-worth are connected to how well they conform to socially prescribed models of ‘good’ parenting and what Hays (1996) calls ‘intensive mothering’ – a descriptor that also calls attention to the fact that parenting remains a highly gendered and gendering activity (Vincent, 2010; Kane, 2012; 2018). This socially valorised model of what it means to be a good parent involves ‘a heavy investment of the mother’s time, energy, money and emotional commitment to enhancing the child’s intellectual, physical, social and emotional development’ (Vincent and Ball, 2007: 1069). Importantly, this ‘concerted-cultivation’ parenting approach is likely to be adopted by middle-class parents; as such, it is tied-up with class identities and inequalities and closely aligns with middle-class practices, norms and values (Lawler, 2005; Weininger and Lareau, 2009; Lareau 2011). If such parenting practices act as a key cultural yardstick by which parents are judged, and judge themselves by, then failure to live up to its demands may induce anxiety, self-doubt and a sense of failure. Furthermore, successfully adopting and acting out this model may lead middle-class parents to hold particularly positive views of themselves – they are doing what you are ‘supposed’ to do. The social process just described highlights how socioeconomic gradients in parental competence beliefs may emerge and are therefore theoretically relevant in helping us understand the extent to which parents from higher socioeconomic and educational backgrounds are more likely to claim they are better than average parents.

In a similar fashion, children’s educational attainment may shape how parents think about their abilities in relation to being a parent. This is because educational success undoubtedly occupies a central place in the project of contemporary parenting. Schaub (2010) has traced how, over the course of the 20th century, helping children develop the cognitive skills required to succeed at school and gain qualifications became increasingly central to the social role of parenting. Indeed, Schaub (2010: 57) argues that in the US, ‘Parenting for cognitive development had become normative behaviour by the turn of the twenty-first century.’ If children’s success in education influences their parents’ competence beliefs, then we would expect to see differences along social class and educational lines due to the existence of attainment gaps between socioeconomic groups. Therefore, people may make negative assessments of their abilities as parents if their child has low levels of educational attainment.

For our purposes, sociological research on middle-class success and entitlement in education is particularly pertinent. Numerous scholars have highlighted how middle-class parents feel confident and empowered to support their children’s education and, where necessary, challenge the professional judgements of teachers to advocate for their children (Horvat et al, 2003; Crozier et al, 2011; Barg 2013; Calarco, 2018). This sense of confidence stems from middle-class parents’ possession of various capitals and translates into educational and social advantages for middle-class children (Gillies, 2007; Lareau, 2015). Middle-class parents are generally more knowledgeable about education systems, are more responsive to professional advice about child-rearing and are more likely to have positive educational experiences themselves (Lareau, 2015; Barg 2019a). We suggest that these experiences, orientations and assumptions may lead socially and economically advantaged parents to think they are better than average parents.

In contrast, ‘[w]orking class parents and their children are commonly denied the recognition and resources to construct themselves as worthy subjects’ (Gillies, 2008: 1092; see also Skeggs, 2004). This struggle for recognition and respect is particularly noticeable in the field of education where many working-class parents have been marginalised and excluded. As Reay and others have shown, working-class parents are less confident in dealing with teachers, have lower levels of trust in the education system and feel less entitled than middle-class parents to intervene in their children’s schooling (Gillies, 2006; Reay, 2017). Parents from socially and economically marginalised groups possess less of the relevant cultural, social and economic capital that is valued by educational institutions. Given this lack of resources, recognition and respect, combined with the centrality of education to contemporary notions of successful parenting, a possibility is that working-class parents may have lower subjective parental competence beliefs than middle-class parents.

However, we should not assume that the relationship between socioeconomic background and parental competence beliefs is straightforward. Although middle-class parents are often valorised in popular discourse, it has also been argued that middle-class parenting is increasingly fraught, anxious and competitive as rising inequality has heightened the risks and fears associated with downward social mobility (Lamont, 2019). Furthermore, while working-class parents are routinely stigmatised and criticised for how they raise their children, some scholars argue that working-class mothers strongly resist hegemonic cultural framings of them as poor parents and are ‘less apt to measure their own worth in terms of their children’s success […]’ (Francis, 2012: 929). Through our study, we build on this rich body of sociological research, which, as yet, has given little attention to carefully examining the patterning of socially comparative parental competence beliefs.

A role for psychological mechanisms?

We propose that in order to understand why some individuals and social groups are more likely to think that they are better parents than others, a unified analytical framework is required that gives due consideration to sociological and psychological mechanisms. Social psychology, going back to at least Festinger (1954), has long argued that people’s tendency to make social comparisons is both pervasive and important to one’s sense of self. A large body of research has shown that people systematically overestimate their skills and qualities relative to other people, and that people think they are smarter, better at driving and have better relationships than average members of the population (Kruger and Dunning, 1999; Buunk, 2001; Williams, 2003; Heck et al, 2018). This propensity to view ourselves in such a positive, and often self-enhancing, way is known as the ‘better than average effect’ (BTAE) (Alicke et al, 1995; Brown, 2011). Alicke and Govorun (2005: 85) define the BTAE as ‘a particular type of social comparison, one in which people compare their characteristics or behaviours against a norm or standard, which is usually the average standing of their peers on the characteristic’.

Moreover, better than average beliefs are particularly pronounced when they relate to things that people care deeply about (Brown, 2011). Therefore, if the BTAE is as common as studies suggest, and because being a parent is a central part of many people’s identities, it would be unsurprising if the BTAE played a role in shaping parental competence beliefs.

Although the BTAE is a very general phenomenon it is also related to socioeconomic background. A recent study found that ‘Both subjective and objective social class, as well as childhood social class, were linked to stronger BTAE’ (Varnum, 2015: 4). As members of advantaged groups are above average with regard to a range of distributional outcomes, such as income and education, they may make broader inferences that they are better than average across a range of domains. If this were the case with regard to parenting, then, all else being equal, we would expect to see socioeconomic differences in parents’ beliefs that they are better than average parents.

In our theoretical framework, mental and physical health problems are a likely pathway that influences how people perceive their parenting abilities. It seems highly plausible that parents with mental health problems, and particularly depression, may think they are average or worse than average parents. This is because depression is strongly associated with negative self-evaluations. As we suggested earlier, understanding this association is important for both parents and children: the early years are developmentally critical for children and the post-natal period is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression for parents and particularly mothers (Dennis et al, 2017). Moreover, maternal depression also has a negative impact on a range of child outcomes, including cognitive and emotional development (Goodman et al, 2011). Research on parental self-efficacy, which is heavily influenced by Bandura’s (1998) social cognitive theory, suggests that ‘parents with high anxious and depressive symptoms may experience a lack of control and stressful cognitions, which result in negative judgements about their ability to cope with the challenges of the transition to parenthood […]’ (Pinto et al, 2016: 344).

In contrast, holding positive beliefs about the ability to parent and more generally having a positive sense of self is linked with forming positive emotional and physical relationships with children (Coleman and Karraker, 2003; Jones and Prinz, 2005). As we noted earlier, socioeconomic status is predictive of maternal mental health difficulties, with poor parents having higher levels of depression compared to wealthier parents (Wickham et al, 2017).

Summary and hypotheses

Existing research suggests that parental competence beliefs and, in particular, their belief in being a better than average parent are likely to be influenced by a range of sociological and psychological factors. Rather than playing each disciplinary perspective off against each other, we integrate both sources of influence on parental competence beliefs into a shared analytical framework. We do so by investigating the interplay between socioeconomic background, psychological processes and parental competence beliefs, and deriving hypotheses based on the literature discussed earlier.

For example, if BTAE-type effects are present, and particularly prevalent among economically advantaged parents, these beliefs may be further strengthened by the fact that middle-class parents are more likely to believe they meet normatively desirable standards of good parenting. We suggest that parents with higher socioeconomic and educational backgrounds are more likely to claim they are better than average parents (hypothesis 1). Our second hypothesis relates to parental mental health. We propose that mothers reporting high levels of mental distress and depression are less likely to say that they are better than average parents (hypothesis 2).

We also propose that the social and educational gradient in believing that one is a better than average parent is partly due to social and educational differentials in child health, socio-emotional problems and cognitive development (hypothesis 3). In other words, we argue that the impact of social class and educational level on parents’ competence beliefs is statistically mediated partly by the health, socio-emotional difficulties and cognitive abilities of the child.

Finally, we draw assumptions about an interaction effect between parental social class and children’s academic abilities. Because middle-class families seem to engage more and more in competition when it comes to parenting, and perceive children’s academic success as critical to avoid downward social mobility (Lareau, 2011; Francis, 2012; Shirani et al, 2012; Vincent, 2017), we expect that middle-class parents react more sensitively to, and internalise more strongly, low levels of academic attainment or cognitive abilities of their children. We therefore assume that the impact of children’s academic abilities on parents’ competence beliefs depends on parents’ social class: when parents are from the service classes and their children have lower levels of academic abilities, parents are less likely to perceive themselves as better than average parents than parents from intermediate and routine social classes (hypothesis 4).

Measures, methods and data

We drew on data from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) in the UK. The MCS is a large-scale longitudinal survey that follows approximately 19,000 children born at the turn of the millennium. Children and their families were sampled from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Seven sweeps have been carried out so far and take place every two to four years. The MCS collects detailed information from parents, children and teachers in later waves, relevant to studying parenting, family life, social and cognitive development, and educational inequality. We used data from sweep 2 collected in 2004 when participating children were approximately 3 years old (University of London et al, 2017). Studying parental competence at this stage is important, given that the early years of a child’s life are associated with increased mental health risk for parents, particularly mothers. As we mentioned earlier, it is important to note that we included only families where the main parent is the mother in our analysis and therefore our results relate to maternal parenting competence beliefs. After sample attrition and non-response to relevant questions, we were left with a sample size of 11,336 children. To mitigate problems of reduced representativeness that can arise through sample attrition and non-response, and to take into account the disproportionate sampling design of the MCS, we included into our analyses non-response and sampling weights that are provided by the data producers (Hansen K, 2012).

Dependent variable

The dependent variable in our analysis focuses on whether parents think that they are better than average parents. We used information on how parents responded at sweep 2 when asked about how they feel about being parents. The possible responses were as follows: (i) not very good at being a parent, (ii) a person who has some trouble being a parent, (iii) an average parent, (iv) a better than average parent, (v) a very good parent, and finally, (vi) can’t say. Table 1 shows how parents responded to this question: as we can see, very few people said they were worse than average and the most common single response was average. Parents who responded ‘can’t say’ were excluded from the analysis. For the dependent variable, we created two categories: one that combined (i), (ii) and (iii), and a category that reflected those who said they were better than average (iv), and very good parents (v). The theoretical reasoning for a dichotomous measure is that we wanted to capture the socially comparative nature of parents’ assessment of their parenting competencies. We combined (iv) and (v) and used ‘a better than average parent’ as the cut-off point because this category directly captures the comparative nature of parental competence beliefs; every rating ‘above’ this category, we assumed, incorporates this comparative thinking as well. To study the impact of alternative measures, we also conducted robustness checks with (1) a dichotomous variable distinguishing between ‘a very good parent’ and all other categories, and (2) an ordinal variable consisting of four categories: (i)–(ii), (iii), (iv) and (v).

Table 1:

Descriptive statistics of parental competency beliefs (percentages, frequencies in parentheses)

Original detailed variableVariable generated for analysis
Not very good at being parent0.26 (30)Average and below41.19 (4,606)
Some trouble being a parent2.71 (311)
Average parent38.22 (4,265)
Better than average parent27.34 (2,967)Above average58.81 (6,730)
Very good parent31.47 (3,763)
Total100 (11,336)Total100 (11,336)

Note: Percentages are calculated using sample design weights (Hansen K, 2012); frequencies are not weighted.

Independent variables

A central focus of our analysis examines the relationship between socioeconomic background and whether parents think they are better than average parents. We therefore used three commonly used measures of socioeconomic background: class, parental education and income level. Existing research shows the need to assesses how each of these may have a distinctive impact on educational and social inequality and parenting (Erola et al, 2016). Our measure of social class reflects NS-SEC categories (National Statistic Socio-Economic Classification). This is a widely used measure of social class in UK social stratification research and is derived from the Goldthorpe class schema, which seeks to capture structural differences in labour market and employment situations. We used the highest social class of the mother or father – the dominance order approach – in order to capture the overall level of cultural and economic resources in the family.

Our measure of education captures the mother’s National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) level or its equivalent. Again, this is a standard way of reflecting levels of educational attainment in the UK. For education, we focused on the mother’s educational attainment because mothers are typically more involved in childrearing, in particular when the child is very young. The variable has the following categories:

  1. None of these.

  2. Overseas and other qualification.

  3. NVQ level 1 (lowest level) – corresponds for instance to GCSE-grades1 D to G (A low level of achievement in examinations typically taken at age 16).

  4. NVQ level 2 – corresponds to GCSE-grades A to C.

  5. NVQ level 3 – corresponds to A-levels (examinations typically taken at age 18).

  6. NVQ level 4 – includes undergraduate degrees and diplomas of higher and further education.

  7. NVQ level 5 (highest level) – includes postgraduate degrees and doctorates.

To capture the mother’s economic situation in more detail, we included a binary measure designed to reflect whether the household is classified as being in poverty. This is defined as being below 60 per cent of the median household income in the UK and is therefore a measure of relative poverty. We also included a range of other theoretically relevant control variables relating to social background and parents’ competence beliefs.

We used two measures to operationalise the mother’s mental health. The first variable indicates whether the mother has ever been diagnosed with depression or anxiety by a doctor. The second measure captures psychological distress during the last 30 days in sweep 2 using the Kessler-6 or K-6 scale (Kessler et al, 2003). Following the literature (Hope et al, 2019), we created the categories ‘low distress’ (K-6 score <4), ‘medium distress’ (K-6 score 4–12) and ‘high distress’ (K-6 score >12). Mother’s physical health is measured through a variable indicating whether the mother has a longstanding illness, disability or infirmity.

Finally, we also considered the characteristics of children themselves. We might expect that parents of children with behavioural or physical health problems – factors that are likely associated with socioeconomic status – would compare themselves less favourably to other parents. We therefore include a measure of the cohort member’s physical health and their score on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ). The SDQ is a screening tool to identify children’s mental health, and behavioural and emotional problems (Goodman et al, 2000). We also included a variable reporting whether the child has any longstanding physical health problems. Finally, we also included a measure of cognitive development at age 3 – the Bracken School Readiness Assessment (BSRA) – which evaluates whether they can identify numbers, letters, sizes, shapes, colours and draw various comparisons (Panter and Bracken, 2009). BSRA scores are grouped so as to indicate whether a child is ‘delayed’, ‘average’ or ‘advanced’ in terms of school readiness. Table 2 shows the descriptive statistics for all the independent variables.

Table 2:

Descriptive statistics of independent variables and distribution of parental competence beliefs across categories of independent variables (%)

Full analysis sampleDistribution of parental competence beliefs
Average or belowAbove average
%%%
Social class
Higher service class17.3534.9265.08
Lower service class31.4137.7962.21
Intermediate14.3742.1957.81
Small employer7.9841.0158.99
Lower supervisory, technical8.6849.2550.75
Semi-routine12.0848.5051.50
Routine6.2148.9251.08
Not working/not on leave1.9247.8252.18
Education
None of these8.7146.6653.34
Overseas1.7744.4255.58
NVQ18.0551.2248.78
NVQ229.7943.9756.03
NVQ315.6141.4658.54
NVQ432.0435.4464.56
NVQ54.0236.5563.45
Poor household
Yes25.7947.5152.49
No74.2139.2660.74
One-parent household
Yes15.5547.0752.93
No84.4540.4359.57
Number of siblings [mean]12.851.15561.1095
Age of main parent
Younger than 20 years0.7655.5344.47
20–29 years30.8846.3153.69
30–39 years59.3738.8861.12
40 years or older8.9940.9759.03
Workings status
Employed/self-employed:
Full time9.7838.9461.06
Part time46.5740.8259.18
Looking after family39.6942.6157.39
Other reason not working3.9644.1455.86
Reading to child
1–2 times or fewer per month5.0951.448.6
1–2 times per week13.4548.5851.42
Several times per week19.2344.7155.29
Every day62.2337.9862.02
Ethnicity of main parent
White93.3642.0857.92
Mixed0.7443.8356.17
Indian1.2634.6065.40
Pakistani, Bangladeshi1.9333.6566.35
Black, Black British1.9834.0066.00
Other ethnic group0.7229.3570.65
Mother longstanding illness
Yes20.8243.6056.40
No79.1840.9459.06
Mother depression
Yes29.3350.7249.28
No70.6737.6762.33
Mother Kessler-6 score
Low distress67.6534.7165.29
Medium distress29.4753.8546.15
High distress2.8869.5630.44
Child strength and difficulties (SDQ)
Normal80.8736.8763.13
Slightly raised10.0757.0442.96
High5.0060.5639.44
Very high4.0659.5140.49
Child longstanding illness
Yes15.6443.6856.32
No84.3641.1058.90
Child school readiness
Delayed10.9649.9850.02
Average61.4642.8357.17
Above average27.5834.7265.28
Child gender
Male49.9042.9357.07
Female50.1040.0459.96
N11,3364,6066,730

Analytical strategy

As our dependent variable had two categories we ran binary logistic regression models and our analysis had two goals: first, we aimed to uncover associations between socioeconomic background, various related factors such as maternal depression and distress, child health, cognitive and socioemotional development, and parents’ competence beliefs. Second, we investigated the extent to which the association between socioeconomic background and parents’ competence beliefs can be explained (or is ‘statistically mediated’) by these related factors. Therefore, we began by including various social class backgrounds (model 1) before adding maternal education and family’s financial situation (model 2) in order to disentangle the association with socioeconomic background. We then added variables relating to maternal mental health (model 3) and child physical health, socioemotional difficulties and school readiness (model 4). We included mother and child characteristics separately in order to understand which of these groups of factors are more relevant. We present the results as average marginal effects (AMEs) and predicted probabilities for interaction effects. AMEs correspond to the mean of changes of predicted probabilities for a variable (for example, from higher service class to the reference category routine class) across all observations in the sample.2

Results

Table 2 shows how the dependent variable is distributed across the categories of the independent variables. Parents’ beliefs that they are better than average parents appear to be patterned by a range of sociological and psychological characteristics. For example, parents with higher levels of education and in higher-class positions are more likely to say they are better than average. Table 2 also shows that those reporting higher levels of maternal depression and distress are more likely to report that they are average or worse than average parents.

We now turn to discussing the results from our binary logistic regression models. Model 1 in Figure 1 clearly shows a significant association between social class and parental competence beliefs, holding a number of control variables in the model constant. The AMEs show that the higher the social class of the parents the more likely they are to say that they are better than average parents. For example, on average across all cases in the analysis sample, mothers in the higher service class are more than 10 percentage points more likely to say they are better than average compared to those in routine non-manual classes. Age, ethnicity and parenting behaviour in the form of reading to the child are also significantly related to parental competency assessments. We find, for instance, that mothers age 20 to 29 years are more likely to say they are average or worse than average parents compared to mothers who are 30 to 39 years old.

The graph is split into top and bottom parts. The top part shows the data for model 1 and 2 and the bottom graph shows the data for model 3 and 4. In the graph, the horizontal axis is scaled from negative 0.4 to 0.4 in increment of 0.2 unit and the vertical axis lists the different variables. The graph shows the following. Model 1 suggests that the higher the social class of parents, the stronger is the belief that they are better than average parents. Model 2 suggests that the probability of a mother believing she is better than average parent is higher for a mother from a higher service class than a mother from the routine class. Model 3 suggests that when compared to mothers than mother with low levels of distress, mothers with medium or high levels of distress are less likely to say that they are better than average. Model 4 suggests that parents of children who are at the top of the school readiness scale are far more likely than typical parents to believe they are doing a good job.
Figure 1:

Results from binary logistic regression models of parental competence beliefs, baseline ‘below average and average’ (AMEs, 95% confidence intervals)

Citation: Families, Relationships and Societies 2022; 10.1332/204674321X16316937949373

Notes: SC=social class (Ref. routine), ETH=ethnicity (Ref. White), WS=working status (Ref. full time), EDU=education (Ref. NVQ1), SR=school readiness (Ref. delayed), SDQ (Ref. normal), R=reading to child (Ref. <once p. month); results correspond to Table A1 in online supplementary material (Barg and Baker 2021); in model 3 and model 4 coefficients of selected not statistically significant control variables are not shown.

In order to examine and disentangle the relationship between parental competence beliefs and socioeconomic background, we added relevant variables in sequentially. While model 1 only includes social class, model 2 also includes our measures of education and poverty. When we include these variables, the strength of the relationship with social class is reduced but nevertheless remains statistically significant. We see that the AME for the higher service class is almost 0.1, indicating that – on average across all observations with their values on the other variables – the predicted probability that a higher service class mother finds herself a better than average parent is 10 percentage points higher than the predicted likelihood for a mother from the routine class. What we also observe is a clear association between level of education and parental competence beliefs: generally speaking, the higher the level of education the more likely parents are to say they are better than average (the category NVQ5 is very small (see Table 2), which could explain a different pattern and non-significant coefficient). The analysis shows no significant association between living in relative poverty and parental competence beliefs. In sum, we find evidence supporting hypothesis 1 as socioeconomic and educational background are significantly related to rating oneself as a better than average parent.

Model 3 in Figure 1 includes variables relating to mothers’ psychological states. What is clear from our results is that mothers with medium or high levels of distress, compared to mothers with low levels of distress, are much less likely to say that they are better than average. We find that that the relationship between maternal distress and our outcome variable is stronger than it is for the social background variables. We also see a similar pattern for mothers who have indicated that they have ever been diagnosed with depression. As the relationship between parental competence beliefs and class and education is strongly reduced when these psychologically oriented factors are included in the model, we find evidence relevant to evaluating hypothesis 2: socioeconomic differences in parental competence beliefs are importantly driven by social gradients in maternal psychological states. To verify how well the selection of variables across the different models explain the outcome variable, we conducted an F-adjusted mean residual goodness-of-fit test (or Hosmer–Lemeshow test), which is suitable for logistic regressions run on survey data based on complex sampling such as in the MCS (Archer and Lemeshow (2006)).3 This test revealed that while all three models have a reasonable fit and should not be rejected, model 3 is more appropriate than model 1 and model 2.

Our final model includes relevant child characteristics (model 4, Figure 1): school readiness, SDQ scores and whether the child has a longstanding illness. It is important to remember that the SDQ is based on mothers’ assessments of their children. Model 4 shows that parents with children in the highest school readiness category (‘advanced’), are much more likely to report that they are better than average parents. This could suggest that the cognitive development of children is considered by parents when they rate their parental competencies. At the same time, since we cannot make claims about the direction of effects, this result could show that parents who think highly of their parenting competencies are also more engaged in their children’s academic development leading to higher school readiness levels. We also find that when children have scores in the highest SDQ category, which indicates social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, their parents are less likely to believe that they are better than average. Importantly, even considering a broad range of theoretically relevant factors, our final model still shows that parental education remains a relevant predictor. Although the influence of class is eliminated and the education coefficient slightly reduced, the likelihood that mothers with NVQ4, compared to those with NVQ1, say that they are better than average parents is around 10 percentage points higher. The results provide some support for hypothesis 3 showing that socioeconomic differences in parents’ beliefs about their competencies are linked to corresponding differences in child SDQ and academic abilities. The results support our argument for the need to study sociological and psychological mechanisms within a unified analytical framework. However, as goodness-of-fit tests reveal that model 3 has a slightly better fit than this final model, it appears that mothers’ psychological states, which were added in model 3, are particularly important.

We ran robustness analyses with the same four models but on two alternative dependent variables. The first set of these checks are binary logistic regressions with a dichotomous dependent variable with the category ‘a very good parent’ compared to a category including all other categories. The results strongly correspond to those explained above: associations with parental social class and education are strongly reduced and lose significance as the mother and child variables are included. The second set of robustness checks are ordered logistic regressions with a four-category dependent variable consisting of below average parent, average parent, better than average parent and very good parent. These produce somewhat different results: even in the ‘reduced’ model 1 and model 2, social class and educational level do not have significant effects. Corresponding to the results of our main analysis, however, mother’s mental health and child SDQ have relatively strong significant effects. Across all these additional variables child school readiness has no significant effect.

Next, we ran a regression model including an interaction term of parental social class and the school readiness score to test hypothesis 4, which assumes that the effect of child academic ability varies depending on parents’ social class position. (see Figure 2) We generated predicted probabilities to give a sense of the overall size of chances that parents from different groups state they are better than average (figure on left) and discrete change effects (figure on right). Discrete change effects are the differences between the predicted probabilities for selected categories – for example, the higher and lower service class – and the reference category.

The left graph shows predicted probabilities of believing being a better than average parent. Its horizontal axis has three markers starting from the left, they are delayed, average, and advanced. Its vertical axis is scaled from 0 to 0.8 in increments of 0.2 unit. The graph shows the following data for different types of school readiness. Delayed: higher service class, 0.48; lower service class, 0.58; routine class, 0.63. Average: higher service class, 0.62; lower service class, 0.62; routine class, 0.55. Advanced: higher service class, 0.65; lower service class, 0.64; routine class, 0.61. The right graph shows discrete change effect*. Its horizontal axis has three markers starting from the left, they are delayed, average, and advanced. Its vertical axis is scaled from negative 0.6 to 0.2 in increments of 0.2 unit. The graph shows the following data for different types of school readiness. Delayed: higher service class, negative 1.9; lower service class, negative 0.8; routine class, not marked. Average: higher service class, 0.8; lower service class, 0.8; routine class, not marked. Advanced: higher service class, 0.4; lower service class, 0.3; routine class, not marked. All values are estimated.
Figure 2:

Interaction effect on parental competence beliefs of social class and school readiness (predicted probabilities and discrete change effects – reference ‘below average or average’)

Citation: Families, Relationships and Societies 2022; 10.1332/204674321X16316937949373

Notes: Legend for social class: ●=higher service class; ■=lower service class; ▲=routine class (reference category); predicted probabilities are calculated from regression models including interaction effects and holding constant ethnicity at ‘White’, age at ‘20–29 years’, Mother K-6 at ‘low distress’, child and mother no longstanding illness, two-parent household, full-time working, one sibling, male child and mother reads several times per week. *Discrete change effects are differences between predicted probabilities (see left figure) of higher/lower service class and routine class. The table presenting the underlying regression table can be viewed in online supplementary material (see Table A2 in Barg and Baker, 2021).

We find that social class differentials in parental competency beliefs vary by child’s school readiness level. When children’s school readiness is categorised as ‘delayed’, social class differentials appear to be more pronounced than when readiness levels are ‘average or ‘advanced’ (left graph). More specifically, when a child has an ‘average’ level of school readiness, the likelihood that a higher service class mother thinks that she is a better than average parent is around 65 per cent while the same likelihood is around 55 per cent for a working-class mother. By contrast, when the child’s school readiness is ‘delayed’, the service class mother is considerably less likely to think that she is better than average (around 45 per cent) than the working-class mother (around 65 per cent). This could be showing that parents from professional classes react more sensitively and feel responsible for their children’s lower skill levels. Further, this process could be driven by social comparisons – their child might be exhibiting lower skill levels than the other children in their social networks, which likely consist of other professional parents among whom ‘concerted-cultivation’ attitudes and high academic aspirations are prevalent.

Discussion and conclusion

In this article, we have systematically analysed whether parents think that they are better than average parents – a social comparative dimension of parental competence beliefs. Using high-quality and nationally representative data from the UK, we show that socially comparative parental competence beliefs are patterned by socioeconomic status and a range of related key characteristics. Apart from maternal educational level, we find psychological states, children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development, mothers’ ages, and ethnicity to be particularly powerful predictors of mothers’ competence beliefs.

We extend existing research in four important ways. First, the figure of the young mother with low or no qualifications has long been a socially vilified figure in popular and political discourse in the UK (Gillies 2007; Jensen 2018). We suggest this backdrop can help to explain one of our key findings: namely, that teenage mothers and mothers with low levels of education are much less likely than their older and higher-educated counterparts to say they are better than average parents. Partly, this may reflect how people internalise widely held assumptions about who the ideal parent is and what they are supposed to do. A range of scholars have persuasively shown how socioeconomically advantaged parents are routinely positioned ‘doing the right thing’ when it comes to raising children (Gillies, 2008; Vincent, 2017). However, and in this particular case, we have shown that it is largely education and not social class or poverty that predicts differences in parental competence beliefs. In fact, the social class differences in parents’ competence beliefs that one might observe ‘at first sight’ (in the data or in everyday life) seem to be entirely driven by mothers’ education level, their health states and certain child characteristics. This is important because it stands in contrast to so much sociological research that stresses large social class differences in attitudes, beliefs and values. It also shows the value of our analytical approach, which has attempted to disentangle how various dimensions of socioeconomic background are related to what parents believe.

Overall, our findings make a major contribution to sociological research concerned with identifying and explaining between-groups differences in parenting and their relationship to educational and social inequalities (Vincent and Ball, 2007; Weininger and Lareau, 2009; Lareau, 2011; Barg 2019a; 2019b). Second, our findings also extend research on the BTAE, suggesting that, with respect to parenting beliefs, those near the top of social and economic hierarchies think better of themselves compared to other people (Varnum, 2015).

Third, in this article we have shown the importance of integrating findings and theories from sociology, psychology and educational research. Research in these disciplines often runs on parallel tracks and at times the relationship between them can be uneasy and even spill-over into outright antagonism – yet our findings show that both social and psychological factors are related to parental competence beliefs. This suggests there are good theoretical and empirical grounds for greater disciplinary integration when it comes to studying family life, parenting and belief formation processes.

Finally, our results provide further evidence about the relationship between mental health and how mothers think about themselves as parents. Not only could poor mental health and depression lead to mothers making negative evaluations of themselves as parents, our findings suggest there is a socially comparative dimension. Our finding that young mothers and those with low levels of education are at risk from seeing themselves as worse than average parents provides valuable information for identifying those parents who may benefit from additional support during a critical period of life.

As with any study, there are limitations that should be recognised. One issue is what we can call the reference group problem. Although our analysis focuses on socially comparative beliefs, it is not clear precisely whom parents may be comparing themselves to and whether this is consistent across groups. The reference group may be friends, family members, network ties or some broader population of parents. Future research could explore whom exactly parents are comparing themselves to. A further important issue is that we are often radically ignorant about other people’s lives and interpersonal relationships, therefore it is also important to consider whether people’s socially comparative competence beliefs are rationally grounded in appropriate evidence.

There are three other limitations to our study that could be considered in future research. First, our analysis focuses only on mothers. Our analysis could be extended by looking at the competence beliefs of fathers. Second, we focus on patterns across social groups and associations with socioeconomic background in particular. Our analytical approach cannot account for the influence of unobserved factors or identify the direction of effects. Some of the relationships we uncover could be going both ways and are likely driven by complex mechanisms that our study does not represent. Third, we have focused on what mothers think when their children are very young. Studies could examine how parental competence beliefs change over the life course and particularly when children enter the formal education system. This is when many parents feel under scrutiny by educators and become aware of how well their child is doing relative to others. Future research could make use of the panel structure of the MCS to address problems regarding reverse causality and to study how parents’ belief that they are better than average changes as children grow older and live through different developmental and educational phases.

Notes

1

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education; grades A* to G indicate the level of education.

2

Through calculating the predicted probabilities for all observations, the values on covariates of the observations are taken into account. AMEs, like predicted probabilities, go from 0 to 1.

3

Common goodness-of-fit measures such as AIC and BIC are not suitable for logistic regression with data obtained through complex sampling designs (for example, with oversampling of certain groups of participants). For this case the literature recommends an F-adjusted mean residual goodness-of-fit test, which we apply using the Stata command ‘estat gof’ in Stata 15 (Archer et al,Lemeshow? not in References otherwise 2006).

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the families who participated in the Millennium Cohort Study. We are grateful to the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), UCL Institute of Education, for the use of these data and to the UK Data Service for making them available. However, neither CLS nor the UK Data Service bear any responsibility for the analysis or interpretation of these data. We also would like to thank the reviewers for helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • View in gallery

    Results from binary logistic regression models of parental competence beliefs, baseline ‘below average and average’ (AMEs, 95% confidence intervals)

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    Interaction effect on parental competence beliefs of social class and school readiness (predicted probabilities and discrete change effects – reference ‘below average or average’)

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  • 1 University of Exeter, , UK
  • | 2 University of Bristol, , UK

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