[China] Grandparents' Co-parenting in Urban China and Its Influence on Parents and Children - Projects



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[China] Grandparents' Co-parenting in Urban China and Its Influence on Parents and Children


This article introduces the background and current situation of grandparental involvement in early childcare in urban China, as well as the characteristics of grandparenting and its impact on parents and children. It is based on the author's own childrearing experience and the results of recent empirical research in Shanghai, China. While grandparents' support for childcare has become a strong support for dual-earner households, there are also some problems or challenges involved in co-parenting.

Key Words:
grandparents, co-parenting, dual-earners, China, QOL, children
Japanese Chinese
Background and Current Situation of Grandparents' Co-parenting in China

Although there are numerous dual-working families in China, the number of childcare facilities for children under the age of three has diminished considerably since the 1990s due to the impact of reforms in the country's economic system1. With limited public resources for childcare, it is common for young parents to co-raise children with grandparents in urban areas of China.

By 2015, the family structure of 'four grandparents - two parents - one child' had become the principal style in Chinese families due to the governmental one-child policy in force from 1980 to 2015. Relatively speaking, it is easier for young parents to receive help from at least one of the four grandparents, unless there are special reasons, such as living far from each other, poor physical condition of grandparents, or poor relationships with grandparents.

The "Survey on Grandparents' Participation in Childcare" (a questionnaire survey responded to by 522 mothers with one-year-old children, hereinafter referred to as the "Grandparenting Survey") was conducted by the author's research team in Shanghai, China in 2017. It showed that in Shanghai, 26% of the respondents' children were raised entirely by grandparents, 62% were co-raised by parents and grandparents, and 12% were raised entirely by parents. Similarly, another survey conducted in the Changning District of Shanghai in 2012 (Research on Childrearing Perspective and Situation of Dual-earning Parents with Children Aged 0-3) reported that, 68.5% of working couples with infants aged 0-3 years co-raised children with grandparents, relatives or babysitters. In urban areas, working parents usually take care of their children only in the mornings and evenings, or only on weekends. Some families use "childcare support services" such as babysitters, nannies and daycare centers. However, as the labor market for childcare/nannies is not yet standardized, the quality of caregivers engaged in childcare varies, with high mobility and lack of responsibility. Therefore, for the average family, asking grandparents to take care of their children is the optimal solution to the problem.

In families that have better financial conditions, sometimes domestic helpers are hired to do housework so that the grandparents can concentrate on looking after the children.

Families who are passionate about early education tend to send their children to an early education center after the age of two. In such cases, grandparents take responsibility for transportation to and from the center. Even if the children are not sent to an early education facility, there is a tendency for parents to consciously engage in early intellectual education by themselves (e.g., numeracy, literacy, pinyin) while they are at home. In other words, grandparents are mainly responsible for housework and daily care of the child (e.g., children's food, clothing and living), while parents are responsible for discipline and intellectual education. It is said that the most popular pattern of co-parenting is to supplement each other.

The situation may vary depending on each family's situation, but from our observation and experience, in most families they divide their roles in such a way between parents and grandparents, more or less.

In the 'Grandparenting Survey,' when we asked the respondents (mothers of one-year-olds) to name up to three people who are primarily responsible for the daily care of the child (e.g., dressing, feeding, bathing, putting the child to bed, etc.), the main caregivers selected from the available options were as follows: mother (85.8%), father (36.6%), paternal grandfather (7.9%), paternal grandmother (35.6%), maternal grandfather (12.3%), maternal grandmother (37.4%), babysitter/nanny2 (7.1%), and others (0.8%) (Figure 1). It indicates that the top three were "mother," "grandmother (paternal + maternal)," and "father." It is clear that grandmothers (paternal and maternal grandmothers account for over 60%) play a very important role in daily life, surpassing fathers in proportion.

On the other hand, when we asked "Who is mainly responsible for the child's education (discipline, study, etc.)? (maximum 3 persons)," the results were as follows: mother (91.8%), father (62.3%), paternal grandfather (8.0%), paternal grandmother (23.6%), maternal grandfather (9.0%), maternal grandmother (27.4%), babysitter/nanny (3.4%), and others (0.8%) (Figure 1). It shows that, similar to the tendency of daily care, the main persons in charge of children's education were the mother, father and grandmother. However, in terms of education, the proportion of fathers exceeded that of grandmothers (the sum of paternal and maternal grandmothers was about 50%).


Figure 1. Main caregivers of child's daily-care and education

This means that more than 85% of mothers are the main responsible person in both daily care and education. However, the division of labor between grandmothers and fathers in daily care and education is more marked. More grandmothers are responsible for the children's daily life, while fathers are responsible for the children's education.

In terms of the specific support provided by grandparents, it showed that grandparents are mainly in charge of the daily care of children and help with household chores. As children grow older, young parents will tend to become more involved in their children's academic learning than grandparents, but at the age of one, grandparents also teach discipline, manners, and language to children in their daily care.

Characteristics of Co-parenting with Grandparents

From the situation mentioned above, it is clear that grandparents of dual-income families play a very important role in early childcare. They provide great help to young parents physically, and mentally, in terms of time and finances. Many mothers mentioned that they would not be able to keep up with work and childcare at the same time without the help of grandparents. On the other hand, from our interviews with some of the mothers, it was found that although the young parents appreciated the grandparents' support, some of them were also suffering from intergenerational conflicts in co-parenting due to the differing attitudes/values in childcare or living habits between the two generations. This may be one of the main characteristics of co-parenting and one of the reasons why the young parents mentioned that they would prefer to raise their children on their own if their situation allowed them to.

For instance, with the new trend of early education and the introduction of Western values of childcare into China, young parents are eagerly studying various new ideas and methods through the Internet and books related to parenting, and are willing to practice them in child-rearing. However, the grandparent generation's views on child rearing are still deeply rooted in tradition, making it difficult for them to accept new ideas. It is often heard that young parents insist that children can wear light clothes because their metabolism is very active, but grandparents always tend to dress their children in heavy clothes to avoid catching a cold.

Grandparents' pampering of their grandchildren also goes against the parents' way of child-raising from time to time. For example, parents want their children to be as independent as possible, so their policy is to let the children do what they can on their own, but grandparents often tend to do it for them. In particular, due to the influence of the 'one-child' policy, most families only have one child, so the child is often cared for or protected too much by their parents and grandparents. In particular, the grandparents tend to permit whatever their grandchild wants or wants to do. Grandparents today are of a generation that experienced a lot of hardships in the past, so they want their grandchildren to have an easy life. For example, despite the young parents' policy of forbidding their children to watch TV during meals and to learn to eat by themselves, their grandparents tend to feed the children while showing TV. Of course, there are also cases where grandparents are strict in disciplining and parents are too indulgent.

Consequently, sometimes conflicts may occur between young parents and grandparents due to differing opinions or attitudes in childcare.

In addition, elderly grandparents are not as physically strong as young parents, so it is difficult for them to play actively with their grandchildren or go out. Young parents want their children to be physically active and get lots of exercise, but grandparents have physical limitations and are worried about their grandchildren getting injured, so they often spend most of the daytime quietly at home or near home. In such cases, parents might get worried about the social skills of their children due to inadequate interaction with their peers.

In particular, in the case of grandparents who temporarily live in their children's homes to take care of their grandchildren, the grandparents do not have many opportunities to go out because they are not familiar with the community and do not know the people in their neighborhood. Consequently, the grandchildren raised in such a situation do not have many opportunities to meet or interact with other people. Of course, the situation varies from person to person and from family to family. Some grandparents are extroverted, open and socially active, and they like to take their children to various social events. What is mentioned here is only a general tendency.

On the other hand, although young parents may have limited experience in child rearing, nevertheless most of them consider their grandparents' ideas on child rearing to be outdated. As a result, young parents tend to refer to child rearing books for everything, giving their grandparents instructions according to these textbooks. This is quite a burden for the grandparents, and it is also quite stressful for them to be criticized on the way they raise their grandchildren, so family relations occasionally deteriorate due to such conflicts or friction in child-rearing. In our "Grandparenting Survey," when mothers were asked about the frequency of intergenerational conflicts due to differences in child-rearing attitudes, 9.1% of the mothers answered "often," 53.0% answered "sometimes," and 32.5% answered "not often."

Influence of Co-parenting with Grandparents on Mothers and Children

Regarding the effect of co-parenting with grandparents on parents and children, the results of the "Grandparent Survey" show that grandparent support for childcare improves the quality of life (QOL) of working mothers. The more support grandparents provide, the more satisfied the mothers are with their lives. On the other hand, the more conflict occurred between parents and grandparents at home, the more violent reactions (e.g., crying, screaming, tantrums, etc.) the children presented when they were in frustrating situations.

When parents and grandparents have different child-rearing policies, there is a high possibility of quarrels and tensions in the family relationship, which may bring about stress to the children and make them prone to emotional instability.

Another interpretation, from the perspective of social learning theory, is that children may see scenes of conflict between their parents and grandparents, and when they encounter frustrations or discomforts, they might unconsciously imitate adults' emotional expressions. Also, our data verified the negative correlation between intergenerational conflicts and mothers' QOL. That is, the more conflicts occurred, the lower life satisfaction the mothers reported. In other words, the conflicts may reduce the positive effect of grandparents' support for young parents. Disagreements between the two generations on parenting concepts are inevitable in co-parenting, but this can have negative effects not only on the mother but also on the child. In this regard, how to reduce the differences of opinion or how to deal with conflict scenes is the next question we need to discuss and solve in the future.

In addition, according to the results of another of our studies on grandparenting conducted during 2014 to 2016 among 505 parents of kindergarten children (four- to six-year-olds) in Shanghai, it was found that children raised exclusively by their parents were more pro-social than the grandparenting group or the co-parenting group. That means the more grandparents were involved in parenting, the lower pro-sociality the children showed. This may be related to the characteristic of grandparenting as mentioned above ― generally grandparents are less socially active compared to young parents. If a child has limited contact with other children or adults outside the family before entering kindergarten, this may result in the child becoming easily nervous when encountering strangers, not knowing how to get along, and showing timidity and fear. They also do not know how to play with other children and are prone to conflict.

Moreover, the results of the four-year-old children showed that those children raised by grandparents showed more intensive reactions in frustrating situations.

As stated above, the intergenerational conflict between parents and grandparents might result in strong emotional reaction from the children. Another reason for this phenomenon might be grandparents' indulgence. If grandparents always try to satisfy the needs of their grandchild as much/soon as possible, the child might become self-centered and unable to accept delay in his/her gratification. The child would cry, yell or lose his/her temper whenever he/she doesn't get their way. The child may think that if he/she cries, grandma and grandpa will respond to them immediately.

On the other hand, according to our follow-up survey over the next two years, it is found that the "intensity of reaction" of children decreased significantly and their sociability increased. It is possible that their pre-school parenting style (in this case, the influence of grandparents' participation in childcare) was weakened through the group life and education in kindergarten.

Based on the above findings from our empirical research and personal child-rearing experience, we can say grandparental involvement in childcare is certainly a strong support for the younger parents. Meanwhile, various issues or challenges for parents or grandparents in co-parenting still exist - i.e. intergenerational conflicts, issues caused by less social activity due to grandparents' physical decline, and grandparental doting. In the future, we hope to provide specific advice for co-parenting families through further study, so as to improve the quality of co-parenting.


  • 1. In the past, daycare centers were mostly set up in state-owned and state-run enterprises, but with the privatization of enterprises, numerous daycare centers have had their funding withdrawn.
  • 2. A person who has more expertise and experience in childcare than a babysitter, who focus only on childcare, not on household chores or other help.
Sun Yi, Ph.D.
Asia-Japan Research Institute, Ritsumeikan University, Assistant Professor
Dr. Sun received her Ph.D. in psychology at Ochanomizu University, and is now working in Ritsumeikan University. She has led or participated in several international comparative projects on parenting environment in early childhood. One of the projects is the ‘Grandparenting Study,’ which investigates the influence of grandparental involvement in childcare on children’s personality and the QOL of parents and children―a comparative study between Japan and China.’