Psychology Parents' Beliefs about Children
Scott A. Miller
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0317


What parents believe about children is one of the venerable topics in developmental psychology, with research dating back more than a century and publications numbering in the thousands. It is a topic that is by no means limited to psychology—numerous related disciplines bring their own perspectives to the study of parents and children. The reasons for interest are clear. Within psychology, the study of parents’ beliefs speaks to many of the central questions with which the science deals, questions of both theoretical and pragmatic importance. One is the nature of adult social cognition, that is, thoughts directed not to the inanimate world but to other people. For most parents, there is no more frequent target, and also no more important target, for social-cognitive efforts than one’s child. There may also be no more challenging target. Rearing a child may require dozens of decisions a day, often with little time to reflect and at times with a strong emotional accompaniment. Furthermore—and again in contrast to most instances of social cognition—the child presents a moving target, as the infant morphs into the toddler who morphs into the preschooler and so on up to adulthood. The result is that the study of parents’ beliefs, although it draws from the general literature on social cognition, also adds significantly to this literature. It adds as well to the literature on well-being and development in adulthood. Feelings about the self typically have many origins, but for parents few are as important as perceived success or perceived failure in the parenting role. Parents’ beliefs affect parents. Finally, and most critically, parents’ beliefs affect children. The relevant issue is again a long-standing one in psychology: Do beliefs lead to behavior—in this case, do parents’ beliefs affect how they treat their children? The answer is yes—not always, often not strongly, not necessarily as a sole cause of parental behavior, but as one cause. The study of parenting in fact provides the fullest evidence for a link between what we believe and what we do. It also provides clear evidence for the final link in the chain: Parents’ behavior affects children’s development. Parents are never a sole cause; all developments have a biological underpinning, and other social agents are often important. But parents’ beliefs and behaviors are one contributor to how children develop, and there is arguably no more important question to which psychology speaks.


Books relevant to the study of parents’ beliefs divide into two categories. The larger of the categories consists of books devoted to parenting in general, and thus to numerous aspects of the parental role in addition to what parents believe. Necessarily, however, all such books devote some space to parental beliefs, given the importance of beliefs to both parents’ behavior and children’s development. They are a good starting point, therefore, before delving into more specialized treatments. Indeed, some of the strongest of the parenting books have been written by researchers who are major contributors to the study of parental beliefs: Grusec 2019, Holden 2021, Lansford, et al. 2021. The same point applies to an edited book that has long been a major source for research on parenting, the Handbook of Parenting, edited by Bornstein 2019 and now in its third edition. Valuable as these sources are, however, the fullest treatments of the beliefs literature come in the second category of books: those devoted to the topic of parents’ beliefs. Of these books, the most recent and the most comprehensive treatment is Miller 2020. Smetana 2011 is a particularly valuable source with respect to adolescence, and Harkness and Super 1996 is a particularly valuable source with respect to culture. Finally, several early books by pioneers of the topic introduced central questions in the study of beliefs and provided initial answers to these questions, answers on which subsequent research continues to build. Among these books are Goodnow and Collins 1990, Sigel 1985, and Sigel, et al. 1992.

  • Bornstein, M. H., ed. 2019. Handbook of parenting. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Now in its third edition, the Handbook of Parenting comprises five volumes and ninety-six chapters devoted to various aspects of parenting, all written by authors with expertise in the topic. It is easily the most valuable resource for anyone interested in the parenting research literature.

  • Goodnow, J. J., and W. A. Collins. 1990. Development according to parents: The nature, sources, and consequences of parents’ ideas. Hove, UK: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Written by two of the field’s leading researchers, this book is especially strong with respect to its coverage of the family. A particular emphasis is on household responsibilities: who should do what around the house, how do expectations change as the child grows older, and for what issues and with what effects do parent and child disagree? Among the book’s contributions are some intriguing cultural differences in parental beliefs and practices.

  • Grusec, J. E. 2019. Principles of effective parenting. New York: Guilford Press.

    Grusec has long been both a major researcher of parenting and a valuable expositor in conveying this work to others. This book is an example of the latter contribution.

  • Harkness, S., and C. M. Super, eds. 1996. Parents’ cultural belief systems: Their origins, expressions, and consequences. New York: Guilford Press.

    Harkness and Super have long been among the leading researchers and theorists of parenting and culture. In this edited volume, they bring together a wide range of contributions from several dozen research teams.

  • Holden, G. 2021. Parenting: A dynamic perspective. 3d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    As with the Grusec entry, this book benefits from its author’s long-term contribution to the literature being summarized. Holden, however, provides a fuller treatment than does Grusec, including discussions of currently controversial topics (e.g., use of physical punishment).

  • Lansford, J. E., D. C. French, and M. Gauvain, eds. 2021. Child and adolescent development in cultural context. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    As its title indicates, this book discusses aspects of parenting across different cultures. It first identifies four important aspects of parenting, after which chapters by researchers expert in the settings discuss the form that these aspects take in eight different countries as well as three ethnic groups in the United States.

  • Miller, S. A. 2020. Parents’ beliefs about children. New York: Oxford University Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190874513.001.0001

    This book provides the fullest review of research on parents’ beliefs about children. Included are discussions of the theories that guide research, an analysis of strengths and weaknesses of different methods of study, a summary of major findings across different phases of development (infancy, childhood, and adolescence), and a discussion of the challenges that occur when clinical conditions impact either parent or child.

  • Sigel, I. E. (Ed.) 1985. Parental belief systems. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    This edited book is an early and influential contributor to the study of parents’ beliefs. It identifies central issues in the study of beliefs, and it presents discussions of these issues by some of the field’s leading researchers.

  • Sigel, I. E., A. V. McGillicuddy-DeLisi, and J. J. Goodnow, eds. 1992. Parental belief systems. 2d ed. Hillsdate, NJ: Erlbaum.

    This book is a follow-up to the 1985 publication. As with the earlier work, multiple contributors discuss issues and relevant research in the study of beliefs, in some instances with specific ties to the earlier book.

  • Smetana, J. G. 2011. Adolescents, families, and social development: How teens construct their worlds. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Judith Smetana has long been one of the leading researchers of adolescent development, and this book draws together conclusions from both her own research program and the work of others.

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