Chinese parents are known for their steadfast devotion to their children’s education in a country where exam performance still holds wide-ranging ramifications for students’ future prospects. Nowadays, however, middle-class moms and dads in China’s big cities are blending traditional concepts of parenting with more holistic approaches in raising their kids.
More and more young parents are buying into suzhi jiaoyu, or “personal quality education,” a term that refers to encouraging children to cultivate diverse interests outside the traditional, exam-oriented educational curriculum. These interests can include anything from Chinese calligraphy, to skateboarding, to robot programming, and usually involve attending so-called interest classes, usually offered by private education companies. Many parents usually sign their kids up for three classes — one sports-related, one arts-related, and one science- or math-related — and expect their offspring to obtain extra qualifications in these subjects outside school.
Another theory holds that giving children a variety of different experiences is key to healthy growth. Every summer, Chinese cities see their museums, galleries, theaters, and planetariums fill up with screaming schoolchildren, dutifully followed by grim-faced parents. Others sign their children up for workshops, talks, and camps both at home and abroad.
I’m not as pushy as some parents — my son’s classmate, for example, attends four different English courses — but I still strive to fill my kids’ free time with a variety of activities. My 8-year-old son learns to play the traditional board game of Go, plays a bit of piano, and goes swimming once a week. Meanwhile, my 3-year-old daughter takes drawing and roller-skating lessons. We frequently visit Shanghai’s major museums and galleries, and try to travel together when we can.
Until recently, I believed that the sacrifices I made for my kids today would help mold them into well-rounded individuals. But then something happened that challenged my faith in this belief.
One afternoon at home, my son handed me a 10-yuan ($1.50) note he had found in another part of the house. Smiling at his honesty, I jokingly said to him: “Why give it to me? Why not keep it for yourself?” I remembered cheekily stealing coins from my parents’ purses as a young girl and using them to buy ice cream. But instead of smiling, my son just stared at me in confusion.
It dawned on me that I’d never given my son any pocket money, because he’d never had the chance to use it. He is accompanied down every street and into every shop by me or another family member. In spite of all my emphasis on personal quality education and interest classes, he — like most of his peers — wrapped up in layers upon layers of parental overprotection.
I realized that my son’s childhood is quite different from mine. Like the majority of Chinese families in the 1980s, both my parents worked full-time when I was in primary school. My classmates and I all kept a house key in our bags and some small change in our pockets. After-school activities consist of buying cheap snacks from a roadside stall — deep-fried pancakes made of shredded radishes, or maybe a piping hot sweet potato — and playing for a couple of hours with our friends before my parents came home from work.
I didn’t take any extracurricular classes, because my parents neither saw my upbringing as some kind of sophisticated project designed to engineer me into a successful individual, nor had the money to spend on out-of-school activities. And so, like most parents, they left certain things to chance, and I had lots of free time.
My son rarely spends time with his classmates outside school. When the school day finishes, parents and guardians take every child straight home or on to some extracurricular class. These days, it is rare to see groups of children playing in the city’s residential neighborhoods.
I don’t necessarily think that my childhood was better than my son’s. Most of the games I played with my childhood companions were rather silly and sometimes dangerous; I remember being cut by a sharp stone hurled at me during a game of soldiers. We played together to relieve our collective boredom, and to this day, I regret that I didn’t have the chance to study a musical instrument or learn how to swim butterfly style.
But parents today have taken their children’s upbringing to the other extreme. Some may argue that Chinese schoolkids still have time to play, they just do so more productively — for example, by playing soccer under the guidance of a coach, or singing in a choir. But this sort of organized fun hardly compares to finding your own entertainment and horsing around with friends. Children today don’t get to decide what to play themselves; their parents do it for them.
There is a deeper issue with modern Chinese parenting styles, too. Casual play helped me to develop strong interpersonal relationships and hone my social skills: How do I make friends? How to I keep my distance from someone I don’t like? How do I handle an insult? And how do I make up with someone after a quarrel? Personal relationships give more meaning to our lives than our work, wealth, or social status. But we are forcing our children to neglect these relationships in the name of a future full of good jobs, high incomes, and social influence.
Peer group activities are missing from the lives of many Chinese children, but we must be wary of defining this phenomenon as a “problem.” Experience tells us that when today’s parents identify problems with their children’s upbringings, they tend to solve them by adding even more activities, classes, and courses to their kids’ already crowded calendars. What they don’t do is give their kids time to form relationships in ways that aren’t goal-oriented.
More Chinese parents need to realize that our hand-holding mentality is overwhelming our children. We have to loosen our grip, give our kids time of their own, and let them take the initiative. As parents, we worry endlessly about preparing our kids for the real world. At times, we see life as a battlefield on which everyone must arm themselves for a fight. But the best times in life are those stolen moments we spend with other people — an idle afternoon with a beloved companion, a cup of tea with an old friend, or a simple game of tag with our classmates after school.
Editor: Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A child wheels a schoolbag along a road in Shanghai, April 17, 2012. Yang Yi for Sixth Tone)