Kerris Cooper is a fourth year PhD student in Social Policy. Her research focuses on the relationship between economic hardship and parenting behaviours in the UK. Kerris is passionate about making academic research accessible and is the recent winner of the LSE’s Three Minute Thesis competition.

What’s the puzzle in your PhD topic?

My research explores the relationship between economic hardship and parenting in the UK. It is well-known that by the time children in the UK start school, children from low income households are already behind those from more advantaged backgrounds. Politicians have pointed the finger at parenting as the main reason for this and the policy focus in recent years has been on improving parenting rather than ensuring families have adequate incomes. However, it is not clear that it makes sense to focus on one without also addressing the other. My research looks at the relationship between the two, in other words, how might being poor affect your parenting behaviours? In particular I am looking at the role of stress as a potential mechanism between poverty and parenting.diagram-poverty-and-parenting

Why is this important?  

Focusing on parenting alone in order to close the attainment gap will only get us so far, if low income parents’ parenting is partly because of their low income. Understanding more about the relationship between low income and parenting therefore has important implications for policy interventions: should we continue to focus on improving parenting itself? Should we focus more on making sure families have adequate financial resources? If stress and mental health plays an important role, should we be ensuring low income parents get the necessary support and access to mental health services?

Whilst much of the policy discourse around this topic is focused on children’s outcomes, this topic is important because it also relates to parents’ wellbeing; understanding more about how economic hardship can impact parents’ wellbeing and parenting is an important aim in its own right.


How are you investigating this?

I use a large representative UK dataset that has followed children and their families since they were born in 2000. I look at data from when children are aged five years and analyse 38 measures of parenting and see how these differ by income group, whilst taking into account other important factors such as mother’s education and work status. I also look at other indicators of economic hardship such as debt, material deprivation and feeling poor, as well as housing quality and local area. Next, I look at whether mother’s mental wellbeing explains these relationships. Specifically I test the Family Stress Model, which is well-evidenced in the US but has not been fully explored in the UK context. This is the theory that low income parents parent differently because financial difficulties cause stress and stress impacts parents’ behaviours with their children.fsm-diagram

What has surprised you in your research?

Two of my findings in particular tend to surprise people. Firstly, given the policy attention poor parenting has received it is surprising to discover there is really not much variation in how people parent (or at least how they report that they parent): the vast majority of parents, regardless of their income, are parenting in ways we would describe as good!

Secondly, contrary to political rhetoric, low income parents are actually doing some types of parenting better than parents with higher income. For example, parents in the lowest income group report more frequently helping their child with maths and writing and taking them to the park more often.