Parenting Practices Function Differently as Society Develops

Parenting is known to influence adolescents’ academic adjustment. What happens when cultural norms related to parenting change?

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Parenting constitutes an important context of adolescent development. Cross-country studies demonstrate that parenting practices that match cultural values lead to favorable adolescent development outcomes, such as better school performance. Here comes the question: what happens to the functions of parenting when a culture’s values shift rapidly? Due to the socioeconomic development of Chinese society, cultural values are changing toward individualism, and characteristics such as autonomy and assertiveness become more favorable.

According to Patricia Greenfield’s theory of social change and human development, along with a sociodemographic development from Gemeinschaft (more rural, poorer) to Gesellschaft (more urbanized, wealthier), cultural values tend to change from collectivism to individualism. No doubt, the world is changing, but significant social changes from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft often take a long period of historical time. However, China is undergoing drastic sociodemographic development brought by socioeconomic reforms. As an example, from 2010 to 2017, although only seven years apart, China’s annual per capita GDP doubled. Therefore, contemporary China provides a special context for investigating the influence of social and cultural change on the functions of parenting practices.

We recruited two cohorts of Chinese urban and rural adolescents in 2010 and 2018 and asked them to answer the same sets of survey questions. The two cohorts were equivalent in terms of their age, residential areas, and schools they attended. Three parenting practices were measured:

  • Acceptance/involvement: parents’ provision of emotional support for children, sensitivity to children’s needs and active involvement in children’s lives.
  • Strictness/supervision: providing clear and consistent guidelines and maintaining knowledge about children’s whereabouts, activities and friendships.
  • Autonomy granting: parents’ acknowledgement of children’s perspectives and the provision of opportunities for youth to make decisions independently.

The function of parenting practices was evaluated in terms of their association with adolescents’ academic adjustment. In addition, the Behavioral Process Model of Familism indicated that children’s familial values are affected by parenting and are linked to their adjustment. In order to explain any changes in parenting practices’ relation with academic adjustment, we examined adolescent’s family obligation values as a mediator.

We found that, for acceptance/involvement and strictness/supervision, their functions were the same in 2010 and in 2018. Both of them promoted adolescents’ family obligation values, which in turn contributed to adolescents’ academic adjustment. This result is interpretable because both acceptance/involvement and strictness/supervision are important and necessary in collectivistic and individualistic cultures, or in “traditional” China and contemporary China.

For autonomy granting, however, in 2010, it was associated with adolescents’ poorer academic adjustment, as a result of hindering adolescents’ endorsement of family obligation values. But in 2018, these negative effects have gone — we interpret this finding as a result of China’s change in cultural values. When traditional values were more prevalent in 2010, adolescents regarded a high level of parental autonomy as a lack of discipline. However, along with cultural values changing towards individualism, the negative impacts of parental autonomy granting appear to be fading away.

The present study has important practical implications. Parents could improve their childrearing practices to cultivate children’s family obligation values, which may contribute to positive development, including but not limited to academic adjustment. More importantly, especially for parents from China or other countries undergoing socioeconomic development, granting children more autonomy may be an adaptive way of parenting to facilitate adolescents’ better adjustment.

Xinwen Bi.jpg

Xinwen Bi is a Ph.D. Candidate at Shandong Normal University. Her major research interests include parenting, parent-adolescent relationships, adolescents’ academic adjustment and social change.





Liang Zhang.jpg

Dr. Liang Zhang is a lecturer at Shandong Normal University. His major research interests include adolescents’ academic competence development and developmental psychopathology.







Yiqun Yang.jpg

Yiqun Yang is a Ph.D. Candidate at Shandong Normal University. Her major research interests include adolescent psychosocial development and longitudinal data analysis.





Wenxin Zhang.jpg

Dr. Wenxin Zhang is a Professor at Shandong Normal University. His major research interests include developmental behavior genetics, the development of child/adolescent problem behaviors, parent-adolescent relationships, and peer relationships.

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