Affect and maternal parenting as predictors of adaptive

International Journal of Behavioral Development
2006, 30 (2), 158–166
© 2006 The International Society for the
Study of Behavioural Development
DOI: 10.1177/0165025406063631
Affect and maternal parenting as predictors of adaptive and
maladaptive behaviors in Chinese children
Li Wang
Xinyin Chen
Huichang Chen
Peking University
University of Western Ontario
Beijing Normal University
Liying Cui
Miao Li
Shanghai Teachers’ University
University of Western Ontario
Emotional control has traditionally been emphasized in Chinese culture. The primary purpose of the
study was to examine the relevance of early affect to social functioning in Chinese children. A sample
of children, initially at two years of age, and their mothers in the People’s Republic of China participated in this two-year longitudinal study. At Time 1, observational data were collected on children’s
affect and maternal parenting in mother-child interactions. At Time 2, children’s behaviors were
assessed in peer interactions. In addition, data on behavioral problems were collected from parental
reports. It was found that whereas positive affect positively predicted prosocial behavior, negative
affect was positively associated with later behavioral problems. Both positive and negative affects were
negatively associated with on-task behaviors. Finally, child affect might moderate the relation between
maternal parenting and social behaviors. The results indicate the role of child affect and parenting
in social and behavioral development in Chinese context.
children are less reactive and expressive than their Western
counterparts in both positive and negative affects (e.g., Camras
et al., 1998; Fogel, Toda & Kawai, 1988; Kisilevsky et al.,
1998). Whereas the cross-cultural differences in children’s
affective display are interesting, an important question for
developmental researchers is whether and how they are
relevant to social adaptation in non-Western cultures (Saarni,
1998). There is virtually no existing research addressing this
question. Therefore, we conducted a two-year longitudinal
study to examine the developmental significance of affect in a
sample of children in the People’s Republic of China.
Affective reactivity is one of the fundamental dimensions of
socio-emotional characteristics in childhood (e.g., Eisenberg,
Fabes, Guthrie, & Reiser, 2002; Saarni, Mumme, & Campos,
1998). Researchers have found substantial individual differences during infancy and toddlerhood in children’s affective
involvement in social interactions (see Rothbart & Bates, 1998;
Saarni et al., 1998 for comprehensive reviews). It has been
argued that the tendency to display positive affect may be a
personal resource in coping with psychological stress and
problems (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1998; Eisenberg et al., 1996).
Moreover, the expression of positive affect may be helpful for
establishing and maintaining social relationships (Saarni et al.,
1998). In contrast, child negative affect may have adverse
impact on social interactions and thus impede the development
of socially appropriate behaviors (Eisenberg et al., 1993).
These arguments have received support from empirical
research. It has been found that child positive affect is associated with, and predictive of, such outcomes as intimate parentchild relationships and affiliative and prosocial behaviors,
whereas child negative affect is associated with social and
behavioral problems (e.g., Denham, 1986; Denham et al.,
2003; Eisenberg et al., 1993; Eisenberg et al., 1996; Farver &
Branstetter, 1994; Seifer, Schiller, Sameoff, Resnick, &
Riordan, 1996).
There is increasing evidence that children’s early affective
display may vary across cultures. It has been found, for
example, that infants and toddlers in some Asian cultures are
more affectively restrained than North American children
(Camras et al., 1998; Freedman, 1974). Chinese and Japanese
The relatively low affective reactivity and expressivity in
Chinese children may be related to the endorsement of
emotional restraint in the culture (e.g., Bond & Hwang, 1986;
Camras et al., 1998; Kisilevsky et al., 1998). According to
Taoism, individuals are encouraged to suppress their emotions
in interpersonal interactions. Emotional unresponsiveness or
“flatness” is often regarded as an index of social and psychological maturity (Luo, 1996; Wu, 1996). In traditional Chinese
medicine, emotional reactions, such as joy, anger and worry,
are viewed as pathogens or internal pathological factors that
may disturb the flow of Qi and Yin-Yang balance in organs,
which, in turn, may cause physical problems (e.g., excessive
joy may result in dysfunction of the heart) (Bond & Hwang,
1986; Ho & Lisowski, 1997).
Correspondence should be sent to Xinyin Chen, Department of
Psychology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
N6A 5C2; e-mail: [email protected]; or Li Wang, e-mail; [email protected]
The research described herein was supported by grants from the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and by
a Scholars Award from the William T. Grant Foundation. We are
grateful to the children and their parents for their participation.
Affective display in Chinese culture
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The traditional Confucian view is less radical. However, it
is the case that individuals are encouraged to restrain the
expression of emotions. According to Mencius, emotional
control or moderation is necessary for the cultivation and
strengthening of desirable moral character such as ren (virtue,
benevolence) and gang (fortitude, resoluteness). An effective
strategy to learn emotional control is to follow the dictates of
“li” (propriety) – a set of rules for rational actions (Luo,
1996). As pointed out by Bond and Hwang (1986), the
heightened concern for controlling emotions is consistent
with the collectivistic orientation because showing joy or
distress may impose one’s feelings on others and thus may not
be conducive to interpersonal harmony. Maintaining interpersonal and intrapersonal harmony requires inhibition and
moderation of emotional expression (Lin, 1981). Consistently, Kleinman (1980, 1986) has observed that emotional
reactions are normatively moderate or suppressed among
Chinese, and he believes that the suppression of emotions is
related to the cultural emphasis on social harmony. A similar
argument has been made by Solomon (1971), which indicates
that emotions are generally disvalued in Chinese culture
because the expression of emotions, particularly negative
feelings, is often regarded as “dangerous” or shameful to self
and family.
Potter (1988) has offered a somewhat different perspective.
Based on her fieldwork in China, she found that the
expression of emotions did not elicit any social responses and
might not help “achieve social ends”. Thus, she argued that
social functioning and relationships in Chinese society might
not require an emotional basis (Potter, 1988). In other words,
although Chinese people are aware of emotions as part of
their daily life experiences, emotional experiences and
expressions may not have important social consequences.
Emotions are conceived as mere idiosyncrasy, lacking significance for social relationships and actions in Chinese culture
(Potter, 1988).
Little is known about how the values on emotion and
emotional control in Chinese culture are reflected in childrearing attitudes and practices and eventually in child affective
and behavioral functioning. In a recent study based on the
content analysis of parental free descriptions of child personality, Kohnstamm, Halverson, Mervielde and Havill (1998)
found that, among groups in several countries including
Belgium, Greece, Holland, Poland and the USA, Chinese
parents used lowest proportions of descriptors related to
emotional characteristics. The results suggest that Chinese
parents may consider the child’s emotional experiences and
activities relatively unimportant. Regardless of parental attitudes, from a developmental perspective, an interesting and
important question is how emotional display in Chinese
children is relevant to their social interaction and adjustment,
given the cultural emphasis on emotional control (e.g., Bond
& Hwang, 1986; Potter, 1988). We sought to address this
question in the present study.
Developmental outcomes of affect in Chinese
children: The present study
According to the developmental theories (e.g., Campos,
Mumme, Kermoian, & Campos, 1994; Rothbart & Bates,
1998; Saarni et al., 1998), affective display is meaningful for
individual social and psychological functioning. And, the
significance of affective display depends on the nature of the
affect. For example, the display of positive affect in motherchild interactions may “signal” the child’s inclination to establish and maintain social engagement, and in a broad sense,
indicate the child’s willingness and readiness for socialization
(Maccoby & Martin, 1983). As a result, children who display
positive affect are likely to follow adults’ standards and learn
socially valued behaviors (Booth, Rose-Krasnor, McKinnon, &
Rubin, 1994; Calkins & Fox, 1992). In contrast, the display of
negative affect may be associated with the child’s difficulties in
social communications and interactions, which may hinder the
establishment of intimate and supportive parent-child relationships and eventually contribute to maladaptive developmental
outcomes (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 2002). Based on this
argument, we hypothesized in the present study that positive
affect would be conducive to the development of prosocial
behavior and other socially desirable behaviors. In contrast, the
display of negative affect might create adverse conditions for
development and thus predict later social and behavioral
We were interested in children’s prosocial behavior and
behavioral problems as developmental outcomes in this study.
Prosocial behavior, such as helping, sharing and caring, is
based on the consideration of the well-being of others in
social interactions. In Chinese and perhaps other collectivistic cultures, prosocial behavior is highly valued and emphasized because it is essential for the well-being of the collective
(Bronfenbrenner, 1970; Chen, Li, Li, Li, & Liu, 2000; Ho,
1986). In contrast, aggressive and other under-controlled
behaviors are often considered abnormal and strictly
prohibited because they may threaten the group functioning
(Ho, 1986).
In addition to social behaviors and behavioral problems,
we were interested in children’s on-task behavior (behavior
that is directed to the completion of a task). On-task
behavior is associated with such individual qualities as
effort that are necessary for achievement and accomplishment (e.g., Lentz, 1988; Wang, 1995; Workman & Hector,
1978). One of the common beliefs in Chinese culture is
that human behavior is malleable and effort is a major
avenue to improve oneself (Stevenson et al., 1990).
Inability to maintain on-task behavior is viewed as particularly unacceptable not only because it may lead to personal
and collective failure but also because it is believed to be
due to the lack of personal effort (Luo, 1996; Wang,
1995). In Kohnstamm et al.’s study (1998), it was found
that compared with parents in the Western countries,
Chinese parents had significantly higher proportions of
descriptors on child conscientiousness (carefulness and diligence), a construct that is similar to on-task behavior in
the present study. Moreover, the results indicated that
Chinese parents had relatively higher standards for
children’s achievement motivation, and were more
concerned about the lack of effort and task orientation in
their children. We expected that positive affect would
predict on-task behavior because positive affect might facilitate the social and motivational processes, such as social
communication and understanding of adults’ expectations
and social rules, which are important for the development
of on-task behavior (e.g., Kochanska & Askan, 1995). We
also expected that negative affect might impede the learning
processes during socialization and thus negatively predict
later on-task behavior.
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Parenting and its interactions with child affect
To help children understand collectivistic values and learn
group-oriented behaviors such as cooperation and selfcontrol, maintaining parental authority is believed to be
essential in childrearing and education in Chinese culture
(e.g., Luo, 1996). Consistently, it has been found that relative
to Western parents, Chinese parents are less likely to use lowpower inductive parenting and more likely to endorse restrictive and high-power approaches (e.g., Chao, 1994; Chen et
al., 1998; Lin & Fu, 1990; Steinberg, Dornbusch, & Brown,
1992). Despite the cross-cultural differences, however, studies
focusing on within-cultural variations have shown that the
functional meanings of parental power assertion in social and
cognitive development in Chinese children are similar to those
typically found in Western cultures (e.g., Chang, Schwartz,
Dodge, & McBride-Chang, 2003; Chen, Dong & Zhou,
1997; Chen, Liu, & Li, 2000; Hart et al., 1998; Lau &
Cheung, 1987). For example, it has been found that whereas
parental responsiveness and induction are associated with
social competence and school achievement, rejecting and
harsh parenting practices tend to predict adjustment
problems in Chinese children and adolescents (e.g., Chen,
Liu, & Li, 2000; Chen, Wu, Chen, Wang, & Cen, 2001;
Dornbusch, Ritter, Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987;
Hart et al., 1998). It is possible that when parents use high
power and forceful strategies, such as direct command, intrusiveness and prohibition in childrearing, without providing
appropriate explanations, children may have difficulties
understanding and following parents’ advice and guidance
(Chamberlain & Patterson, 1995). Moreover, the use of
coercive and prohibitive strategies may be related to the
child’s negative reactions such as fear and anger which, in
turn, may be related to adjustment problems. Therefore, we
expected in the present study that low-power parenting would
positively predict adaptive outcomes including prosocial and
on-task behaviors and negatively predict behavioral problems.
Moreover, we expected that parental high-power strategies
would positively predict later problems and negatively predict
adaptive behaviors.
In addition to their direct associations with prosocial and
on-task behaviors and behavioral problems, parenting practices and child characteristics may interact in predicting later
behaviors and adjustment. This is because children with
different behavioral and temperamental qualities may respond
differently to given parenting practices (Collins et al., 2000).
The interactive view may be reflected in the model concerning “goodness-of-fit” between child disposition and parenting.
Specifically, according to this model (e.g., Lerner & Lerner,
1983; Lerner, 1993; Thomas & Chess, 1977), the effect of
parenting may depend on the child’s personal conditions such
as temperament, and the compatibility between parenting and
child characteristics may determine how well the child
develops. For example, low-power parenting may be associated with positive responses in children who are compliant
with parents and “ready” for socialization (Maccoby &
Martin, 1983). However, this parenting approach may not be
successful for children who do not respond to, or even resist,
parenting attempts. These possibilities were examined in the
In short, the primary purpose of the study was to examine,
in a sample of Chinese children, the relations between affect
and maternal parenting, on the one hand, and later prosocial
and on-task behaviors and problems, on the other. A sample
of children at two years of age was selected to participate in
the initial study. A follow-up study concerning social and ontask behaviors was conducted two years later. Whereas toddlerhood is an important period for socialization and
socio-emotional development, children in the preschool ages
in China start to engage in extensive peer interactions, similar
to their counterparts in North America (e.g., Chen et al.,
2001). As indicated by Harkness and Kilbride (1983), cultural
variation in affective display is one of the aspects of human
behavior that is most readily observable but is extremely difficult to understand. We believe that this study would provide
valuable information about the adaptational “meanings” of
early affective and behavioral functioning in socialization and
development in Chinese culture.
The data for this study were drawn from a larger project on
children’s socio-emotional development in China. The results
of previous studies concerning child compliance (Chen et al.,
2003b), inhibition (Chen et al., 1998) and parenting behaviors
(Chen, Liu, Li, Cen, & Chen, 2000) have been reported elsewhere. The original study was conducted in 1994–5, and the
follow-up study was conducted two years later. Two hundred
and sixteen Chinese children (102 boys and 114 girls) in
Beijing and Shanghai participated in the original study. The
children’s mean age was 24.42 months (SD = 2.16) at Time
1. Mothers’ mean age was 30.09 years (SD = 3.19; range 23
to 47). The researchers obtained information about children
who were born two years before from local birth registration
offices. The participants were randomly selected from this pool
with no particular criteria for exclusion.
All children except three were living with both parents.
Among the children, 48% were from families in which parents
were workers (two fathers were peasants); most of them had
an educational level of high school or below high school. Fiftytwo percent of the children were from families in which one or
both of the parents were teachers, doctors, secretaries,
accountants or civil officials; their educational levels ranged
mainly from vocational school to college and university
graduate. The average family income per year was 9,816 yuan
(SD = 7,573 yuan), approximately $1182 (US). Due to the
“one-child-per-family” policy that was implemented in the late
1970s, 96% of the children were only children; the “only”
child phenomenon has been an integral part of the family and
socio-cultural background for child development in contemporary Chinese society. Preliminary analyses indicated that the
family demographic variables had no significant effects on the
relations of interest in the study, suggesting that the patterns
of relations were consistent for children from families with
different social and economic status.
Follow-up data were collected two years later from 181
children (85 boys and 96 girls) in the original sample.
Researchers contacted directly the families that participated in
the original study. The sample attrition was mainly due to the
fact that some families moved to a different place without
providing the new contact information. Non-significant differences were found on Time 1 variables between those who
participated in the follow-up study and those who did not.
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We assessed children’s affect and maternal parenting by
observing mother-child interactions in the laboratory situation.
Specifically, mothers and toddlers were invited to visit the
university laboratory within three months of each child’s
second birthday. During the visit, each mother-child dyad
entered a room containing one large and one small chair, a low
table and an assortment of attractive toys. The first free play
session (10 minutes) started immediately after the child and
the mother entered the room. The mother sat in the large chair
and filled out a questionnaire. By the end of the free play
session, the experimenter entered with a basket and asked the
mother to encourage the child to clean up the toys. The cleanup session lasted for approximately 4 minutes. After the clean
up session, there were three sessions, each lasting for approximately 3 minutes, for the assessment of children’s reactions
to stressful and challenging situations. The second free play
session (3 minutes) started after these sessions. Then, there
was a separation and reunion session (3 minutes), followed by
a third free play session (6 minutes). In this study, child affective display and maternal parenting were coded based on
mother-child interactions in the three free play sessions and the
clean-up session.
In the follow-up study, the children were invited to the
university laboratory in quartets, with their parents (mostly
mothers). Quartets, who were same sex and within six months
of each other in age, were unfamiliar with each other. The
observational paradigm comprised (1) first free play session
(15 minutes), (2) a ticket-sorting task (10 minutes), (3) a
speech session assessing reactions to stressful situations
(approximately 5 minutes) and (4) second free play session (15
minutes). During the free play sessions, each group of four
children was left alone and allowed to play freely in the play
room with a number of age-appropriate toys. During the
ticket-sort session, children were requested to sit by a table and
sort several colored tickets into packets and then place them
in a large envelope. Parents completed a questionnaire in a
separate room. Children’s prosocial and aggressive behaviors
in peer interactions were assessed based on the two free play
sessions. On-task behavior was assessed based on the ticketsorting session.
The administration of the laboratory sessions was conducted
by the authors, as well as by graduate and senior undergraduate students in China. Parents were aware of the purpose of
the study. Written consent was obtained from parents of all
participants. All laboratory sessions were videotaped through
a one-way mirror and coded in Canada. The procedure and
the coding schemes for child affect and social behaviors used
in the present study were developed based on previous studies
(e.g., Booth et al., 1994; Feldman, Greenbaum, & Yirmiya,
1999; Kochanska & Aksan, 1995). They have proved to be
culturally appropriate and valid in Chinese children (e.g.,
Chen et al., 2001; Wang, Chen, & Chen, 2002).
Child affect at time 1
We coded child affective display using a time-sampling (10second segments) coding scheme in this study. Positive affect
was coded for clear verbal or nonverbal expression of joy and
pleasure in mother-child interactions, such as laughing,
smiling, singing happily, jumping with joy, and “I am so
happy!” Negative affect was coded for the presence of anger
and distress such as yelling and whining during the motherchild interactions. The coding of affect was based mainly on
facial expression, tone of voice and body language. The data
were coded by two Chinese graduate students in psychology at
a Canadian university who were fluent in both English and
Chinese languages. Inter-rater reliability, based on 10% of the
sample, was 82% (Cohen’s kappa = .78).
Maternal parenting at time 1
Maternal parenting strategies were coded based on motherchild interactions in the free play and clean-up sessions, using
an event-sampling or episodic approach in this study. This
approach allowed coders to detect maternal behaviors in the
dynamic social context according to the episode as a whole. An
episode was defined according to maternal initial goal, the
nature of the behavior, timing, and the final resolution of the
event (e.g., Kuczynski & Kochanska, 1990). Low-power
parenting included provision of information and assistance
(e.g., asking or answering questions) and suggestions and
explanations such as indirect, polite requests and guidance
(e.g., “Why don’t you play with the telephone?”, “Let’s call
grandma, ok?”). High-power strategies included prohibitions,
reprimands, overt disapproval, and direct commands without
explanations (e.g., “You are not a good girl today”, “Don’t
throw the toy!”, “Pick up the toy!”). Finally, “others” were
coded for maternal behaviors that could not be put in the lowpower or high-power category. The relative scores were
computed by dividing the frequency of low- and high-power
behaviors by the total number of maternal behaviors. The
inter-rater reliability for maternal parenting strategies was 90%
(kappa = .82).
Prosocial, aggressive and on-task behaviors at time 2
Children’s prosocial and aggressive behaviors were coded,
using an event-sampling coding scheme, based on peer interactions in free play sessions in the follow-up study. Prosocial
behaviors included verbal and nonverbal behaviors that might
benefit other children such as sharing, voluntary helping,
inviting others to play, cooperation and polite behaviors.
Aggressive behaviors included physical and verbal aggression.
Physical aggression was coded for any form of physical
behavior that might hurt another child such as kicking, hitting
and pushing, grabbing of toys from other children, and
disturbing the activity of others. Verbal aggression included
negative comments, arguing, and verbal attack toward other
children (e.g., “You are so stupid!”). Total frequency scores of
prosocial and aggressive behaviors were computed and used in
the study. Inter-rater agreement was 90% and 96% (kappa =
.85 and .92) for prosocial and aggressive behaviors respectively.
Prosocial and aggressive behaviors were coded by a Chinese
graduate student who was blind to the coding of child affect
and maternal parenting.
Children’s on-task behavior was coded based on the ticketsorting session. On-task behavior included ticket-sorting acts,
discussion with peers about the task, and helping others on the
task. The total length of time that the child stayed on the task
was recorded. The percentage of on-task time, relative to the
entire period of the session or the time till the completion of
the task, was computed to index on-task behavior. The coder
was also blind to the coding of child affect and maternal
parenting. Inter-rater reliability for on-task behavior,
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calculated through dividing the amount of time of agreement
by the total amount of time of agreement and disagreement in
seconds (e.g., Garcia-Coll, Kagan, & Reznick, 1984), was
areas of child affective and behavioral functioning. Maternal
low-power and high-power parenting strategies were negatively
and moderately correlated, suggesting that they might tap
distinct but overlapping aspects of parenting.
Parental reports of child behavioral problems
Relations of affect and maternal parenting to later
behaviors and problems
Parents were requested to complete a Chinese measure of child
behavioral problems, adapted from the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL, Achenbach, 1991). Previous research has indicated
that the items in the measure, particularly those tapping externalizing symptoms (e.g., “argues a lot”, “gets into many
fights”, “physically attacks people”), were appropriate and
valid in assessing behavioral problems in Chinese children (see
Chen et al., 2003a for detail). Parents were requested to rate,
on the 3-point scale (0 = “not true”; 1 = “somewhat or sometimes true”; and 2 = “very true or often true”), each item
according to how well they described their children. A principal component analysis indicated that 28 items loaded on a
single factor. Internal consistency was .86 for mothers and .83
for fathers, respectively, in this study. Mother and father assessments were significantly correlated, r = .62, p < .001. Thus,
average scores of mother and father assessments were used as
a single index of externalizing behavioral problems. Questionnaire data were obtained from 130 mothers and 126 fathers.
Non-significant differences were found between children who
had parental questionnaire data and those who did not on
other variables. The behavioral problem scores were computed
based on mother questionnaire data for the four children who
did not have father questionnaire data. As suggested by other
researchers (e.g., Schafer, 1997), the Markov Chain Monte
Carlo algorithm (MCMC) was applied to impute the missing
values on this variable.
Descriptive data
The descriptive data for boys and girls are presented in Table
1. Significant gender differences were found on Time 2 prosocial and aggressive behaviors. Boys had low scores on prosocial and on-task behaviors and higher scores on aggressive
behaviors than girls. Intercorrelations among the variables are
presented in Table 2. In general, the correlations among the
child variables at each time were generally weak or nonsignificant, suggesting that they might represent different
A series of regression analyses were conducted mainly to
examine contributions of Time 1 variables in predicting Time
2 variables. In these analyses, child gender was entered into the
equation in the first step. Child positive and negative affects
were entered in the second step. Maternal low- and high-power
parenting variables, as more “distal” predictors of child
behavior, were entered in the third step after the child variables. Then a series of two-way multiplicative interactions
between gender, child variables and maternal variables (gender
child variable – step 4, gender maternal variable – step 5,
child variable maternal variable – step 6) were entered hierarchically in the subsequent steps. Finally, three-way interactions among gender, child variable and maternal variable
were entered into the equation. As suggested by Aiken and
West (1991), the main effects were centered before the
Table 1
Means and standard deviations of times 1 and 2 variables for
boys and girls
Time 1 variable
Positive affect
Negative affect
Maternal low-power
Maternal high-power
Time 2 variable
Prosocial behavior
On-task behavior
Aggressive behavior
Behavioral problems
(n = 85)
(n = 96)
t value
* = p < .05; *** = p < .001.
Table 2
Intercorrelations among the variables
1. Positive affect
2. Negative affect
3. Maternal low-power parenting
4. Maternal high-power parenting
5. Prosocial behavior
6. On-task behaviour
7. Aggressive behavior
8. Behavioral problems
Note. n = 181; * = p < .05; ** = p < .01; *** = p < .001.
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prosocial behavior
interaction terms were created to reduce colinearity among the
The regression results concerning the main effects are
presented in Table 3. The results indicated that Time 1 child
positive affect positively predicted Time 2 prosocial behavior
and negatively predicted Time 2 on-task behavior and behavioral problems. Time 1 negative affect negatively predicted
Time 2 prosocial behavior and on-task behavior and positively
predicted Time 2 problems. Maternal low-power parenting was
negatively associated with later behavioral problems. Maternal
high-power parenting was negatively associated with later ontask behavior and positively associated with behavioral
A significant interaction was found between child positive
affect and maternal low-power parenting in predicting prosocial behavior. To understand the nature of the interaction,
we examined simple slopes of the regression of prosocial
behavior on the low-power parenting variable at a high value
and a low value (one standard deviation above and one
standard deviation below the mean) of child positive affect, as
described by Aiken and West (1991). Because the predictors
were continuous variables, significance of the difference
between the simple slopes was equivalent to that of the corresponding interaction term, and thus, significance testing was
not necessary (Aiken & West, 1991). The results indicated that
maternal low-power parenting was positively associated with
prosocial behavior for children with high positive affect scores;
maternal low-power parenting
high child positive
affect, b = 1.60*
low child positive
affect, b = –1.16
Figure 1. Interactions between child positive affect and maternal
low-power parenting.
the relation was not significant for children with low positive
affect scores. The regression lines are shown in Figure 1. No
other significant interactions were found.
Table 3
Results of regression analyses predicting Time 2 variables
Time 2 outcomes
F value
Prosocial behavior
Positive affect
Negative affect
Maternal low-power parenting
Maternal high-power parenting
On-task behavior
Positive affect
Negative affect
Maternal low-power parenting
Maternal high-power parenting
Aggressive behavior
Positive affect
Negative affect
Maternal low-power parenting
Maternal high-power parenting
Behavioral problems
Positive affect
Negative affect
Maternal low-power parenting
Maternal high-power parenting
Step Time 1 variable
Note. n = 181. Positive and negative affect variables were entered
simultaneously in step 2, and maternal low- and high-power parenting
variables were entered simultaneously in step 3.
* = p < .05; ** = p < .01; *** = p < .001.
Recent cross-cultural research has revealed that children and
adults in non-Western societies may display affective patterns
that are different from those found in their Western counterparts (e.g., Kisilevsky et al., 1998). What is unclear is the
significance of affective display in non-Western societies in
terms of its relations with later adaptive and maladaptive
outcomes. Different arguments have been made on this issue
in the literature (e.g., Potter, 1988). The results of the present
study concerning the relations between early child positive and
negative affects and prosocial and on-task behaviors and
behavioral problems in a Chinese sample may help us understand the functional significance of affect from a developmental perspective.
The developmental significance of affect
The main focus of the study was on the predictive relations
between affective display and later social competence and
problems. Our results first indicated that child positive and
negative affects were associated with prosocial behaviors and
behavioral problems in different manners. Children who
displayed more positive affect in mother-child interactions at 2
years were more likely to engage in prosocial and cooperative
behavior in peer interactions and less likely to display behavioral problems at 4 years. In contrast, children who displayed
more negative affect tended to develop less prosocial behavior
and more problems. These results are important in indicating
the nature of positive and negative affects in Chinese children.
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It has been argued that emotional activities may not be relevant
to social development because they are considered of no use
for achieving any “social ends” in Chinese society (Bond &
Hwang, 1986; Kleinman, 1986; Potter, 1988). The results of
the present study posed a serious challenge to this argument.
The findings concerning the links between positive and
negative affects and later prosocial behavior and behavioral
problems suggest that affective display is meaningful for social
development in Chinese children. Positive affect in motherchild interactions may play an important role in establishing
and maintaining a warm and intimate relationship between
mother and the child (Saarni et al., 1998; Seifer et al., 1996).
This relationship may help the child develop positive attitudes
toward others which, in turn, may be beneficial for the
development of prosocial behaviors (Booth et al., 1994;
Denham et al., 2003; Seifer et al., 1996). On the other hand,
the display of negative emotions may undermine social
relationships and thus facilitate the development of social and
behavioral problems (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 2002). Our results
suggest that despite cross-cultural differences in affective reactivity between Chinese and Western children (Camras et al.,
1998; Kisilevsky et al., 1998), the significance of early affect
may be similar for social development in the two cultures. As
a practical implication, our results suggest that, to help
children develop prosocial and cooperative behaviors, which is
a primary socialization task in Chinese collectivistic society, it
is important to encourage the display of positive affect in parentchild interactions, especially if Chinese children are relatively
low in affective display (e.g., Bond & Hwang, 1986; Ho, 1986;
Wu, 1996; Yang, 1986).
Both positive and negative affects were found to be negatively associated with later on-task behavior. The negative
association between negative affect and on-task behavior is not
surprising given that negative reactions and attitudes in parentchild interactions may impede the socialization process in
learning social standards and appropriate behaviors. The
findings concerning the negative relation between positive
affect and on-task behavior are inconsistent with our initial
expectations. A possible explanation is that positive affect may
indicate the child’s interest, enjoyment and active participation
in social interactions, whereas on-task behavior indicates the
child’s effort and ability to maintain focus on “work”. These
results may help us understand the general cultural belief
about the importance of emotional restraint or suppression in
China. As indicated earlier, on-task behavior is associated with
social, motivational and behavioral qualities such as effort and
conscientiousness that are necessary for achievement in various
areas (e.g., Wang, 1995; Workman & Hector, 1978). This
behavior is particularly valued by Chinese people because of
the high emphasis on achievement orientation and the concern
about individual ability and motivation to control one’s
personal desires to fulfil the social requirements in the culture
(Kohnstamm et al., 1998; Stevenson et al., 1990; Yang, 1986).
If this is the case, the encouragement of emotional restraint in
Chinese culture may stem from the concern about the detrimental effect of affective display on the development of ontask behavior.
Maternal parenting and the moderating role of child
Maternal low-power parenting was found to be negatively
associated with later behavioral problems. Moreover, maternal
high-power parenting negatively predicted on-task behavior
and positively predicted behavioral problems. The results were
consistent with the argument that parental power assertion
may serve similar functions in child development across
cultures (e.g., Chang et al., 2003; Chen et al., 2001; Hart et
al., 1998; Lau & Cheung, 1987). Specifically, although
Chinese parents may endorse more restrictive and high-power
approaches than Western parents (e.g., Chao, 1994; Lin & Fu,
1990; Steinberg et al., 1992), the pattern of the relations
between the parenting variable and child behavior in Chinese
children is similar to what has been found in the West (e.g.,
Hart, DeWolf, Wozniak, & Burts, 1992; Booth et al., 1994).
As indicated earlier, it is possible that, regardless of culture,
parental use of forceful strategies without appropriate explanations may be associated with the child’s difficulties in following parents’ advice and guidance and understanding social
standards and social responsibilities, which in turn may be
associated with socially maladaptive and uncooperative behaviors (Chamberlain & Patterson, 1995; Chen et al., 1997).
Parental high-power and coercive parenting may also be related
to children’s negative reactions such as fear, frustration and
anger; these negative reactions may be associated with later
adjustment problems.
We expected that the relations between maternal parenting
and child behaviors might be moderated by child affect. This
expectation was confirmed by the results concerning the
significant interaction between positive affect and maternal
low-power parenting in predicting prosocial behavior. Specifically, maternal low-power parenting was positively associated
with prosocial behavior, but only for children who were high
on positive affect. Thus, the effect of low-power parenting was
determined in part by the child’s affective reactivity in motherchild interactions; without active involvement of the child, this
parenting strategy did not contribute to the development of
prosocial behavior. The results suggest that positive affect may
represent the responsiveness and receptiveness of the child to
parenting attempts (Darling & Steinberg, 1993; Maccoby &
Martin, 1983). Maternal inductive, low-power parenting in
combination with child positive reaction may constitute an
optimal condition or good “fit” for adaptive development. It
should be noted that although the moderating effect of child
affect on parenting is interesting and consistent with our expectations, the interactions between affect and parenting variables
were generally non-significant, suggesting that early affect and
maternal power assertion might make largely independent
contributions to the development of social behaviors. Nevertheless, it may still be important to take into account the child’s
characteristics in the study of parenting practices and their
relations with child behaviors and adjustment in broad areas,
as argued by socialization researchers (e.g., Maccoby &
Martin, 1983; Schaffer, 2000).
Limitations and future directions
Several limitations in the study should be noted. First, we
focused on positive and negative affects in this study. Other
important dimensions of early functioning such as
approach/withdrawal, agreeableness/adaptability, irritability
and frustration tolerance may also be relevant to social
development in Chinese children. Future research should be
extended to these dimensions. Second, we were interested
mainly in the developmental significance of affect and parenting for adaptive and maladaptive functioning in Chinese
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children. The data presented herein were correlational in
nature. Moreover, child initial social behaviors and problems
were not assessed and thus not controlled in the longitudinal
analyses. Therefore, conclusions about causal directions
should be drawn with caution. This may be particularly the
case for the relations between parenting and child adjustment
given the arguments concerning reciprocal influences between
child characteristics and parenting practices (Bell & Chapman,
1986; Lytton, 1990).
Third, only mothers were included in the present study. The
results concerning parenting strategies may not be generalized
to fathers. Fourth, the associations between affect and parenting and later behaviors and problems might be attributed to,
or mediated by, contextual variables such as general socialization beliefs in the future. The development of social and
emotional functioning should be investigated in a broader
context. Fifth, the present study was conducted in a relatively
small sample in urban China. One should be careful in generalizing the results to other regions of the country, particularly
rural areas. Moreover, China has been undergoing dramatic
social and economic changes. Western values have been introduced into the country along with advanced technologies. It
will be important to investigate how societal changes may influence parenting and children’s behaviors. Finally, we examined
how child affect and maternal parenting predicted behaviors
and problems at 4 years of age. It will be interesting to examine
whether and how early affect and parenting have long-term
impact on adjustment in various areas such as peer relationships and school performance in middle and late children. In
spite of the limitations, as the first step in the exploration of
affective display of Chinese children in the context of social
interactions, the present study contributes to our understanding of the significance of positive and negative affects for social
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