The Rise of Maternal Grandmother Child Care in Urban Chinese Families

Cong Zhang, Vanessa L. Fong, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Niobe Way, Xinyin Chen, Zuhong Lu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: This study explores the transformation of patrilineality in grandparents' child care in China, which was traditionally oriented almost exclusively toward caring for sons' children. Background: Since China's 1949 revolution, grandparent child care has undergone rapid transformation, shifting from strongly patrilateral to bilateral or even matrilateral, as maternal grandmothers have become far more involved in child care than in previous generations. Method: This study investigates the choices of maternal versus paternal grandmother child care in 77 urban families that are drawn from a larger random sample of a mixed-method longitudinal study in Nanjing, China. Content analysis is used to analyze semistructured interviews with the parents from these families. Results: The interviews reveal that parents are turning away from the traditional Chinese tendency to favor paternal grandparent child care, instead basing child-care decisions on availability, caregiving qualifications, and the nature of grandmothers' relationship with adult children and their spouses, all of which encourage a greater child-care role for maternal grandmothers than in previous generations. Further examination of these considerations suggests that the following three sociocultural changes associated with China's modernization processes may have led to the new norms in grandparent child care: reinterpreted intergenerational relationships, women's empowerment in natal families, and a child-centered care ideology. Conclusion: These findings suggest that the rise of maternal grandmother child care reflects a weakening of patrilineality in intergenerational resource exchange in favor for a utilitarian strategy of maximizing resources available to urban Chinese families as they adapt to China's rapid socioeconomic transformations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1174-1191
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Marriage and Family
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019


  • China
  • child care
  • grandmothers
  • intergenerational
  • modernization
  • patrilineality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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