Single mothers' self-efficacy, parenting in the home environment, and children's development in a two-wave study.

Author:Jackson, Aurora P.

Using data from a sample of 178 single black mothers and their young children who were ages three to five at time 1 and ages five to eight at time 2, this study examined the links between and among low-wage employment, mothers' self-efficacy beliefs, depressive symptoms, and a constellation of parenting behaviors in the preschool years to children's cognitive and behavioral functioning in early elementary school years. In general, the results supported a model in which the influence of mothers' employment on maternal parenting and child outcomes was largely indirect and mediated by perceived self-efficacy. Employment was related directly to higher self-efficacy, which in turn was associated with decreased depressive symptoms. Depressive symptoms were associated with the quality of the mother-nonresident father relationship and the latter with the frequency of nonresident fathers' contacts with their children. More contact between nonresident fathers and their children predicted more adequate maternal parenting, which in turn was associated directly with the children's subsequent behavioral and cognitive functioning in early elementary school. The results are discussed in the context of social cognitive theory and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

KEY WORDS: children's development; employment; mothers; parenting; psychological well-being; welfare reform


Social cognitive theory posits that people are self-organizing, proactive, and self-regulatory agents in the production of their desired outcomes (Bandura, 1999, 2001). Perceived self-efficacy--the belief that one has the power to produce effects by one's actions--influences aspirations and the strength of commitments to them, level of perseverance in the face of difficulties and setbacks, and vulnerability to stress and depression (Bandura, 1997).

Although there is a rapidly growing body of research on the role of perceived self-efficacy in parenting and on the negative influence of economic hardship on efficacious parenting (Ardelt & Eccles, 2001; Elder, Eccles, Ardelt, & Lord, 1995; Gross, Conrach, Fogg, & Wothke, 1994; Jackson, 2000; Jackson & Huang, 2000), little is known about the mediational roles that maternal self-efficacy beliefs and parenting in the home environment play in linking low-wage employment among single black mothers with preschoolers to their children's behavioral and cognitive development.


With the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) (P.L. 104-193), which places strict time limits on welfare receipt and mandates that low-income recipients work (even mothers with very young children, low skills, and low wages), many single mothers have left welfare for work but still do not earn enough to raise their families out of poverty (Ellwood, 2000).

Income plays an especially important role in family life, because the resources necessary for sustaining the health and well-being of family members and furthering the development of children are dependent on the family's financial resources (Bronfenbrenner, 1988). In the study discussed here, we focused on single black mothers because they are disproportionately represented among the very poor and the welfare-dependent population (Duncan, 1991; Wilson, 1987, 1996).

Some argue that children develop more optimally when there is both a primary caregiver (most often the mother) who is committed to the well-being of the children and another adult (most often the father) who gives support to the primary caregiver (see, for example, Bronfenbrenner, 1986). Little is known about how single black mothers and nonresident black fathers co-parent in poor and near-poor black families and how their separate (but often conjoint) parenting behaviors influence the development of young black children, because most of the research on nonresident fathers' contacts with their children is based on samples of mostly middle-class, divorced, white fathers (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Seltzer, 1991; Shapiro & Lambert, 1999).


The present study was part of a larger research program that focused on the associations among low-wage maternal employment, financial strain, psychological well-being, parenting, and children's development over a three-year period (Jackson, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003; Jackson, Brooks-Gunn, Huang, & Glassman, 2000;Jackson, Gyamfi, Brooks-Gunn, & Blake, 1998; Jackson & Huang, 2000).

In the present study we examined the determinative impact on preschool children's behavioral and cognitive development of mothers' perceived self-efficacy, parenting practices involving the relationship between single mothers and nonresident fathers, and the level of contact between these fathers and their children.

The present study involved a sample of single black mothers--all of whom were current and former (before passage of PRWORA) welfare recipients--with a child who was three to five years old at time 1 (1996-1997) and five to eight years old at time 2 (1998-1999).The mothers lived in three low-income communities in New York City.


Because the mechanisms that mediate the relations discussed earlier are unclear, we used the results to inform our conceptual model (Figure 1) that links low-wage maternal employment, mothers' self-efficacy beliefs, depressive symptoms, and a constellation of parenting behaviors (including maternal parenting in the home environment, the quality of the mother-nonresident father relationship, and the intensity of the nonresident father's contact with the child) in the preschool years (time 1) to children's cognitive and behavioral functioning in early elementary school years (time 2).



In the conceptual model, the influence of mothers' employment status on maternal parenting and child outcomes is largely indirect and mediated by perceived self-efficacy. In social cognitive theory, perceived self-efficacy is a focal mechanism in human agency (Bandura, 1999, 2001).Thus, unless people believe that they can produce desired outcomes through their actions, they have little incentive to act or to persevere in the face of difficulties. Perceived self-efficacy is theorized to be a pivotal factor in successful parenting; research lends support to this view (Ardelt & Eccles, 2001; Elder et al., 1995; Gross et al., 1994; Jackson, 2000; Jackson & Huang, 2000).The higher mothers' perceived efficacy, the less stress and depression they experience and the more they tend to engage in family strategies that promote their children's developmental opportunities.

Mother's Employment and Self-Efficacy

The first phase in the conceptual model concerns the association between maternal employment and perceived self-efficacy in the children's preschool years. In social cognitive theory, socioeconomic factors affect children's development through their impact on familial and self-processes (Bandura, 1997, 2001).

Earlier research has shown that unemployment and welfare receipt can weaken mothers' self-assurance; this feeling of vulnerability has been shown to influence parenting, undermining mothers' beliefs that they can influence their children's development (Brody, Flor, & Gibson, 1999; Luster & Kain, 1987; Mirowsky & Ross, 1989).

Elder and his colleagues (1995) have demonstrated that economic hardship affects children's development indirectly as it influences family processes by undermining parents' perception of their ability to promote competence in their children and to protect them from environments that compromise successful development.

Other researchers have found that economic stresses and unemployment were associated with a diminished sense of childrearing efficacy among white families who experienced the 1980s farm crisis in Iowa and Michigan single-parent black families who experienced unemployment and work interruption in the 1980s (McLoyd, Jayaratne, Ceballo, & Borquez, 1994; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Melby, 1990).

Depression and Mother-Father Relationships

Although a substantial body of research has related maternal depressive symptoms and the quality of the mother-father relationship to the quality of maternal parenting, less is known about the mechanisms that mediate these relations. For example, studies have demonstrated that maternal depression is associated with diminished nurturance, less sensitivity, and increased negativity toward children (Colletta & Lee, 1983; Crnic & Greenberg, 1987); that mothers with poor relations with their child's father behave less optimally in the parenting role (Belsky, 1990; Cox, Owen, Lewis, & Henderson, 1989; Simons, B eaman, Conger, & Chao, 1993); and that fathers can have a positive effect on children's development (King, 1994a, 1994b; Parke, 1981; Patterson, Kupersmidt, & Vaden, 1990; Rudin, 1981). Concerning the latter, however, much of the theory on nonresident black fathers and their relationship with their children has centered on financial child support (McLanahan, 1997; Teachman, 1990; for an exception, see Jackson, 1999).

The second phase in the proposed conceptual model concerns the associations among perceived self-efficacy, depressive symptoms, a constellation of parenting behaviors at time 1 (in the child's preschool years), and the influence of these on child outcomes at time 2 (in early elementary school years). Theoretically, people with high self-efficacy are likely to experience less stress and depression because they act in ways that make the environment more manageable and less threatening (Bandura, 1997).Thus, the paths from self-efficacy to depressive symptoms to the quality of the mother-father relationship to the frequency of the fathers' contact with their children to the mothers' parenting adequacy lead to the hypothesis that mothers with higher perceptions of self-efficacy...

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