Flourishing Amid Family Harmony | Article | Child & Family Blog

Flourishing amid family harmony: Grandmothers in China can support children’s development best when they support the mothers

By Xi Liang and , Zhengyan Wang and , | November 2023 

Helping out the family supports children’s development. But research in China suggests it might be especially helpful for grandmothers to be diplomatic and stand back when mothers are present.


Key Takeaways for Caregivers

  • Both the availability of grandparents and the need for grandparents to support parents in caring for grandchildren are rising globally, with increasing elderly populations and growing demands for high-quality child care.
  • Grandparents can be an important source of caregiving and emotional support for their children and grandchildren.
  • Grandparents in China are often co-parents, living with their adult children and being actively involved in daily caregiving for grandchildren.
  • When grandmothers support mothers by avoiding conflict and letting mothers take the lead in parenting, it can promote healthy mother-child attachment and children’s behavior.

The number of and need for grandparents are increasing globally

In most societies worldwide, the number of grandparents has risen, the result of a half century of extraordinary growth in global life expectancy. At the same time, birth rates have fallen in many countries. As a result, increasing numbers of grandparents are available to help look after fewer children.

Families may need grandparents’ time, experience, and skills. Child care can be expensive or unavailable, especially in infancy. Without grandparents’ support, how can parents ensure that their young children receive the care they require, especially if both parents are in paid employment?

Grandmothers remained careful not to rock the boat and to leave mothers in the lead.

Grandparents offer much-needed support to parents in China

China highlights many of these issues. The legacy of the now rescinded one-child policy makes the predominance of grandparents especially notable: Urban Chinese families typically have a 4-2-1 characteristic — four grandparents, two parents, and one child. Confucian values, still embedded in Chinese family relationships, support clear roles and duties for parents and children, even when the latter become adults. They are meant to care for each other.

Career opportunities and their impact on family harmony

In large Chinese cities like Beijing, well-educated and highly skilled individuals are encouraged to pursue better career opportunities. But fierce competition and economic pressures take their toll on overworked parents. Moreover, kindergartens usually do not accept children under age three, meaning that families are expected to care for their young children.

As a result, grandparents often move to the city, live with their adult children, and provide child care. This happens not only because of cultural expectations, but also so grandparents can provide instrumental and potentially emotional support to their offspring.

Mothers and grandmothers as co-parents

As in many Asian countries, mother-grandmother co-parenting is common in China. Chinese grandmothers, especially when they live with their children and grandchildren, typically engage in many children’s activities, including playing with children; bathing and feeding children; and putting children to bed. They also do household activities such as cleaning and preparing food.

The parenting differences between East and West

Traditional Chinese families differ from the West’s matrilineal caregiving cultures, where intergenerational co-parenting is frequently done by mothers sharing the task with their own mothers. China’s patrilineal system identifies the care of grandchildren as the responsibility of the paternal grandparents, many of whom live with the family or nearby. This can lead to a complication: A mother may be co-parenting with her mother-in-law.

How should grandmothers interact with mothers?

This context of global changes in caregiving needs and the availability of grandparents has implications for the dynamics among generations, particularly in Asian societies. It remains important to understand the well-documented and positive impact on children’s development that a good grandparent can have through the direct care they provide.

How grandparents can support mothers and fathers

We must also answer the more subtle question of how grandparents can best support mothers and fathers. Grandparents in these societies are usually part of a caring team that includes a child’s mother and father. What can grandparents do to strengthen these members of the team and avoid diminishing or undermining their contributions?

To address this question, in our research, we have studied families in Beijing with a total of 60 children. In this culture, grandmothers tend to have a more hands-on role than grandfathers, who may be doing tasks such as shopping. Therefore, in our work, we have focused on grandmothers, using methods of behavioral observation to explore the dynamics of family relationships and the impact of these intergenerational relationships on children’s development.

Important aspects of healthy children’s development are related to a harmonious relationship between grandmothers and mothers.

Grandmothers tend to avoid conflict so mothers take the lead

According to an old Chinese saying, “Everything will flourish if the family is in harmony.” Our study found this to be true. In some families, grandmothers co-parented with their daughters, while in others, they co-parented with a daughter-in-law. Regardless of the relationship, grandmothers tried to maintain family harmony by avoiding confrontations.

Mothers behaved similarly out of filial piety (i.e., respect for one’s elders), particularly in the first six months of their children’s lives. Subsequently, mothers tended to take a more commanding role as principal caregiver in the co-parenting team. But even then, grandmothers remained careful not to rock the boat and to leave mothers in the lead. They seemed to prefer harmony and abstained from confrontation, even when mothers became more assertive.

Positive impacts on children’s development and family harmony

This diplomacy was good for two key indicators of children’s development. First, in families with mothers present and parenting, when a grandmother (whether maternal or paternal) stepped back and watched more, the attachment between infants and their mothers was more secure than when grandmothers were less diplomatic. One might speculate that a grandmother leaving more room for a mother in the co-parenting relationship, and not actively interfering in mother-child interactions, made it easier for mother and child to bond.

Second, when children were two years old, they were less likely to be aggressive and disruptive in their behavior when grandparents were diplomatic than when they were not. These findings are consistent with research on co-parenting between mothers and fathers, which has found that children do better when co-parents are supportive of each other and avoid conflict.

The message to grandmothers

These findings suggest that important aspects of healthy children’s development are related to a harmonious relationship between grandmothers and mothers. Based on our study, these outcomes might occur when grandmothers are patient companions to mothers rather than dominating figures.

The message to grandmothers? Being diplomatic, taking a back seat, and not being overbearing with new mothers are not only good for family peace, but might also be beneficial to young children. In this setting, children might feel closer to their mothers and less prone to conflictual behavior as they develop.

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