Mainland Chinese Mothers’ Autonomy Support Across Four Caregiving Contexts

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Self-determination theorists argue that parental autonomy support is a significant foundation for children’s optimal development and wellbeing. However, research is scarce regarding how parents of very young children practice autonomy support, especially in non-western countries (such as mainland China). This paper describes two studies that address this gap. Both studies investigated how Chinese mothers (children’s age < 7) say they would support their children’s autonomy in four caregiving scenarios. Study 1 was exploratory with 20 low-income mothers of young children (age < 7) from a northeastern city in mainland China. Sensitizing concepts from self-determination theory and constant comparison guided the development of themes. In Study 2, we posed the same questions via Qualtrics and received open-ended responses from 307 Chinese mothers of preschool-aged children. Mothers’ responses were again inductively coded using the constant comparison method (Corbin & Strauss, 2015); in addition, responses were assigned ratings based on expressed level of autonomy support. Maternal levels of autonomy support were compared across the four caregiving contexts. Inductive coding revealed similar autonomy supportive and autonomy restrictive strategies across samples. Autonomy support levels varied across the four caregiving contexts. Maternal education was related to levels of support for children’s autonomy in the academic learning context. Maternal autonomy support levels differ by caregiving context and by mother’s education. Mothers’ responses allowed us to describe various autonomy supportive strategies that mothers said they would use. Sharing these strategies may help parents who are underequipped to better support young children’s autonomy.


This article was originally published as Su-Russell, C., & Ispa, J. (2022). Mainland Chinese mothers’ autonomy support across four caregiving contexts. Journal of Child and Family Studies. (Online First). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-021-02166-0.