Almost overnight, the Chinese internet has lit up with discussions about so-called xionghaizi, or “bear kids.” These are the infuriating children who run screaming through public areas, kick the back of your train seat, press all the buttons in the elevator, or even damage your property.
It was all too much for well-known TV host Meng Fei, who on Oct. 7 exasperatedly posted — and subsequently deleted — a message to his more than 32 million followers on microblogging site Weibo: “The only thing noisier than bear kids on the high-speed train are their parents and grandparents telling them to knock it off. Other countries already have women-only carriages; why can’t China have special carriages for these bear kids and their parents?”
I teach Chinese at elementary schools in eastern China’s Zhejiang province and have also served as a homeroom teacher for more than a decade. I’ve taught kids born in the 1990s and the 2000s. In truth, I haven’t seen much of a difference between the two generations. If I had to point out the greatest discrepancies between children of different generations, it would be only that the older students grew up listening to Chris Lee, while students now listen to TFBoys. Aside from that, there are good and bad kids in every batch.
Thinking back to my own childhood, I was not that different from today’s youngsters either. We ’80s kids would also scream, shout, and run amok. Bear kids have existed in China for decades; why are we only talking about them now?
The answer probably lies in how our lifestyles have changed. An ancient Chinese saying goes: “We know etiquette when our granaries are full; we know honor and shame when we are clothed and fed well.” Chinese people today enjoy ever-higher standards of living and accordingly expect society to adhere to higher standards of civility. Issues that once flew under the radar — like personal hygiene, public order, and respect for others — are now pushed under the microscope.
When I was younger, people would — much more so than now — fight for seats on the bus, cut in line, talk loudly in movie theaters, or crowd around doctors as they diagnosed patients. These were common scenes in China at the time, and no one considered them strange.
Then, on my first vacation abroad in the 1990s, I saw how my fellow Chinese in my tour group to Australia casually dropped litter in the street and raised a racket in restaurants. I remember how Chinese TV channels and newspapers at the time tried to educate people about being civilized visitors, telling us not to spit, vandalize, or speak loudly in public spaces when traveling abroad. They emphasized that tourists should follow local customs, observe appropriate social etiquette, and represent China well abroad. All of this was done to spare ostensibly more civilized, developed societies the burden of putting up with noisy, messy visitors.
Thankfully, the situation has improved vastly in recent years. In China, people on public transport now routinely give up their seats to those in need. Young parents, worried that their child’s crying might bother other passengers, have been known to pass out apology notes with gifts like earphones and candy.
From this angle, the fact that the general public expects better of bear kids reflects social improvements. However, we Chinese still have a long way to go to raise public civility standards. Bear kids are the problem in microcosm: a horde of yelling youngsters who don’t know any better being ignored by parents — and teachers — who should. If we want to rid the country of bear kids, we must first ensure that they are taught, both in school and at home, how to respect other people.
Children are restless by nature. It’s important to understand their innate active tendencies, but that doesn’t mean that we as adults should overindulge them. Parents need to help their children manage themselves emotionally, integrate themselves into public life, and interact comfortably with others.
The emergence of bear kids can be partly attributed to the fact that Chinese children are often raised by their grandparents, who grew up in an era when educational standards were much lower. Understandably, the elderly are unlikely to change their ways and tend to live by the same rough-around-the-edges code of conduct that served them well as youngsters. This, combined with the fact that their grandchildren rarely have siblings, means that Grandma and Grandad frequently indulge unruly behavior.
Another facet of the problem is that many of today’s young parents have only a partial understanding of so-called happy education and the freedom to grow, two current buzzwords in Chinese educational circles. These parents tend to act as if children exist entirely outside established social norms, as if they are not to blame for their own bad behavior. To these parents, allowing their children carte blanche to do as they please is a way of respecting them.
The Polish educator Janusz Korczak had the right idea when he said that you can love your child, but you must also be able to recognize their weaknesses. Parental love means respecting your children as equals, not having an aloof, out-of-touch, and holier-than-thou attitude in teaching them. I have seen parents on multiple occasions shouting at their kids until they’re hoarse, even as the kids continue to do as they wish or even actively rebel against their parents. That usually ends with the parents exploding in anger and the kids screaming bloody murder. This loss of control over the situation can be damaging to the child’s further growth.
Chinese parents born in the 1980s and 1990s should be the best generation of parents in the country’s history. They are generally far better educated than earlier generations. Having grown up in the internet era, they can access an abundance of information, broaden their horizons, and teach their children so much more. Unlike the postwar generation, their childhoods were not marked by want or suffering. The onus is on them to raise a more civic-minded generation of people who respect one another and their surroundings, and who don’t run pell-mell through my housing complex with a red-faced mom or dad in tow.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Tetra images/VCG)