In a predominantly low-income population-based longitudinal sample of 1,292 children followed from birth, higher level of salivary cortisol assessed at ages 7, 15, and 24 months was uniquely associated with lower executive function ability and to a lesser extent IQ at age 3 years. Measures of positive and negative aspects of parenting and household risk were also uniquely related to both executive functions and IQ. The effect of positive parenting on executive functions was partially mediated through cortisol. Typical or resting level of cortisol was increased in African American relative to White participants. In combination with positive and negative parenting and household risk, cortisol mediated effects of income-to-need, maternal education, and African American ethnicity on child cognitive ability.