The purpose of this study was to develop and assess the reliability of a preliminary version of a scale of PA-related informal social control relevant to Chinese parents/caregivers of pre-schoolers living in Hong Kong, a high-density urban area in China. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to develop a reliable scale of informal social control specifically relevant to engagement in PA and children of pre-school age. A recent study conducted in a Latino sample developed a scale of informal social control for parents of Latino pre-schoolers which, however, was not specifically focused on aspects of informal social control perceived to affect children’s PA [].
The development of the scale was based on qualitative investigations of parental/caregivers’ and experts’ perceptions of things that residents could do to create safe neighbourhood environments where young children could engage in PA. Most items generated and deemed important by parents/caregivers pertained to things that residents would do to educate and assist neighbourhood young children in developing behaviours that promote personal safety. Although parents enlisted personal involvement, supervision, and civic engagement as relevant aspects of PA-related informal social control, they were not seen to be as important and prevalent as educating and assisting children. All final subscales of informal social control showed acceptable levels of internal consistency.
While previous studies have found that effective informal social control increases the likelihood of parents giving their children more freedom to play in the local community [], no published studies have, to our knowledge, explored parental views about aspects of neighbours’ behaviour that would enhance their perceptions of neighbourhood safety in relation to young children’s engagement in PA. Our findings were consistent with extant studies on social determinants of children’s PA in that parents expressed their concern about potential unintentional injuries and threat from strangers [,]. The relevance of risk of unintentional injuries [] was highlighted by parents stating that it was important to ‘assist children when they climb on something’, ‘educate children how to use facilities correctly to avoid injuries’ and ‘educate children how to play with other children to avoid conflicts’. Parental concerns about the harm that strangers could cause to their children while they engage in PA in their neighbourhood [,] emerged from their statements that it was important for neighbours to ‘discourage children from playing in parks where there are wanderers’ and ‘advise children not to follow strangers’.
Interestingly, parents participating in the NGT sessions, however, did not generate items describing neighbours’ activities that would specifically address crime and traffic hazard concerns. Such items were introduced by a panel of experts based on prior research acknowledging the importance of crime and traffic safety for engagement in PA [,], and of civic engagement and supervision as ways for residents to collectively address such problems []. Yet, in the quantitative component of this study, participants tended to agree rather than disagree that neighbours would engage in activities that address crime (i.e., would call the police if something looked strange in the neighbourhood; organize meetings with the police and other organizations to promote safety; and work with the city to get more police patrols in the neighbourhood) and traffic hazard concerns (i.e., work with the city to reduce traffic speed limits in our neighbourhood). This indicates that although crime and traffic safety may not be perceived as major safety issues, Hong Kong parents of preschool children, in general, maintain that residents of their neighbourhood would attempt to actively address these problems if needed. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world with respect to violent crime [] and traffic fatalities [] may explain parents’ tendency to consider threats other than crime and traffic as more important to children’s safety.
As noted earlier, eight out of the 13 items generated during the NGT sessions were categorized as practices related to “Educating and assisting neighbourhood children”. This suggests that Chinese parents of pre-schoolers in Hong Kong maintain that neighbours may substantially contribute to creating safe neighbourhood environments for children by educating them about how to behave properly in the community and by assisting them in learning skills that will enhance the level of personal safety. This finding is in line with the content of extant general, non-PA specific child-centred measures of informal social support that consider assisting children in need and stopping acts of misbehaviour as essential components of the construct of informal social support [,].
Another set of findings congruent with previous research regards neighbours’ practices related to personal involvement and general informal supervision of the neighbourhood which were brought up by parents in the qualitative component of the study (i.e., “supervise the neighbourhood children at all times”, “take turns supervising the neighbourhood children” and “know and communicate with one another”). Specifically, previous studies have shown that such behaviours contribute to more positive parental perceptions of environmental safety and, thus, influence parental choices of places where children engage in PA [,].
It is noteworthy that, in the qualitative part of this study, parents spontaneously generated only a couple of items describing neighbours’ practices related to civic engagement. These items were less frequently endorsed by parents than items gauging educating and assisting neighbourhood children in developing skills and behaviours contributing to personal safety. This indicates that Hong Kong Chinese adults may, in general, seldom participate in endeavours aimed at neighbourhood-level policy changes, although this type of collective behaviour has been shown to contribute to better community cohesion and interpersonal connections in Western populations [].
The greater emphasis on enhancing neighbourhood safety by shaping the behaviour of young children rather than trying to change the neighbourhood environment through civic engagement observed in this sample may be attributable to the endorsement of a Confucian traditional philosophy typical of Chinese societies []. An important principle of the political teachings of Confucius is that harmony is achieved if all members of a society loyally perform their role as prescribed in a given hierarchy []. Confucianism cherishes obedience and adaptation to one’s role in a hierarchy rather than actions aimed to change policies and structures mandated by rulers at the higher levels of the hierarchy. Although Chinese societies have made considerable progress towards democracy and greater civic participation, traditional Confucians values remain to a certain extent embedded in approach to life and choices of action [,].
We have developed a preliminary version of a scale of PA-related informal social control appropriate for Chinese parents/caregivers of Hong Kong pre-schoolers. This scale may be also appropriate for use in other urban, developed areas of mainland China and other countries with a high proportion of Chinese residents such as Taiwan, where Confucianism has been found to influence beliefs that shape behaviour patterns and community structure to a greater extent than Buddhism and Taoism[].
Strengths and limitations
One of the main strengths of our study pertains to the use of qualitative methods to inform the content of a culturally-sensitive scale of informal social control appropriate for Hong Kong parents of pre-school-aged children and focused on children’s PA. Unlike other qualitative methods (e.g., focus groups), the use of the NGT methodology in the qualitative stage of the study provided an opportunity to all participants to make an equal contribution to the content of the scale []. The use of cognitive interviews to pilot test the newly-developed scale ensured that the items generated were clear and comprehensive. The fact that we recruited participants balanced by child gender and SES ensured that we developed a scale reflecting a wide range of opinions about aspects of PA-related child-centred informal social control in urban Chinese communities.
This study has also several limitations. Our sample consisted primarily of mothers of Hong Kong pre-school children. Given that a recent study on Hong Kong children has shown that informal childcare was linked to higher levels of young children’s obesity [], it would be interesting to examine what other family and household members think about the ways in which neighbourhoods can be made safe for children to play. Another limitation of this study pertains to the fact that it focused on the test-retest reliability and internal consistency of the scale only. Future studies, in larger samples, will need to examine the factorial validity of the scale, i.e., whether the a priori determined groupings of items hypothesised to represent three latent constructs are a sufficiently accurate representation of the empirical patterns of inter-item correlations. The factorial structure of the scale would then also need to be cross-validated with another sample from a different geographical location in China to examine the generalizability of the scale to populations outside Hong Kong. Finally, future work will need to examine the construct validity of the scale in terms of its associations with pre-schoolers’ PA, parental concerns about children’s safety and parental practices related to pre-schoolers’ PA.