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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.


  • Chinese mothers of very young children support their children’s autonomy.

  • Chinese mothers’ levels of autonomy support vary across caregiving contexts.

  • Mothers’ education is associated with varying levels of autonomy support in the academic learning context.

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I appreciate all the support I received from my dissertation committee Chair and Members: Jean Ispa, Gus Carlo, Duane Rudy, and Candace Kuby. I am also thankful for the hard work of my four bilingual graduate assistants (Jiang Jiang, Chen Ju, Li Yin, and Dongniya Xiu) who helped me transcribe interviews, and contributed to the coding and peer debriefing process. I also appreciate the financial support that I received from the Department of Human Development and Family Consumer Sciences at University of Missouri to provide me a dissertation grant. Significant financial support also came from the Provost’s Office at Illinois State University as Study 2 was funded to the first author.

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Correspondence to Chang Su-Russell.

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Su-Russell, C., Ispa, J.M. Mainland Chinese Mothers’ Autonomy Support Across Four Caregiving Contexts. J Child Fam Stud 31, 2960–2975 (2022).

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