This is the second article in a series on the transformation of Chinese mothers into their children’s education agents. The first article can be found here.
In their desperate attempts to secure the best education possible for their children, Chinese mothers have virtually become agents for their kids. They shell out millions of yuan on homes near top public schools, sign up their young protégés for all manner of extracurricular classes, and start scouting out high schools and colleges years in advance.
In the vast majority of Chinese families, the father invests money into their child’s education, while mothers invest the necessary time and labor. This happens in both public and private education, and reflects two main forms of patriarchy. First, many parents assume that young children are more reliant on their mothers than their fathers, and that it is therefore more incumbent on the mother to shape their child’s attitudes toward schooling. And second, Chinese employers place higher expectations on men than women, rarely leaving fathers enough time to play active roles in their children’s lives.
In the course of my research as a sociologist, I have realized that the above attitudes are widespread throughout the Chinese education industry. I recall an interview with a popular Beijing-based teacher surnamed Cai, who prepares exceptionally bright children to take part in the International Mathematical Olympiad and other math competitions. “I am increasingly convinced that the most logical family arrangement is one with a full-time mother,” he told me. “There needs to be a social division of labor that makes sense. A family needs one person who is specifically focused on taking care of the children.”
Cai, whose name has been changed for this article, did not clarify why families with stay-at-home moms are more “logical” than those in which fathers take on more responsibility for their kids’ education. His comments reflect the deep-seated notion that men should be breadwinners and women should stay home and raise the kids. Although in recent years many Chinese women have pushed back against such beliefs, most continue to tacitly accept the role of homemaker — even highly educated, middle-class women.
Shao, a doctoral student and mother of a 4-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter, is a good example. Monday to Friday is a whirlwind of activity, as Shao takes her children first to kindergarten, and then to classes in ballet, Chinese chess, Lego-model building, and drawing — all while working on her Ph.D. Her husband shows little inclination toward spending time with his children, but Shao perceives this as natural and logical. “Kids at this age are so dependent on their mothers that even when their father plays with them, everyone only end up irritating each other,” Shao said. “My husband might not play much of a role until the kids are 6 or older. If I insist on his involvement before they reach that age, it might even cause issues in our relationship. I’m happy to let him take the kids out if he wants, but if he doesn’t, I won’t ask him to.”
Cai went on to qualify his assertions by saying that children can still succeed relatively well when fathers take charge of their education. But my conversations with Beijing’s moms and dads revealed that few fathers want to shoulder this role. Zhou, the father of a just-graduated college student, openly admitted that he played a minor role in bringing up his daughter. “Of course, her mother worried more about her than me,” he said. “She planned everything out for my daughter … I just ran errands, drove them around, and paid for everything.”
To me, it is clear that many fathers are reluctant to assume hands-on roles in their children’s education, because men tend to face more pressure to meet the standards of an ideal employee. Most Chinese companies leave male staff little time to balance their family demands, a phenomenon that is reinforced both socially — many companies place disproportionate numbers of men in positions of power — and legally, because men are granted shorter periods of paternity leave. The resulting inequality, in turn, entrenches a strongly gendered division of labor in the household within days of the child being born.
But these days, many Chinese mothers go back to work after giving birth, and as their kids get older, they have the burden of duty to both their employers and their children. Thirty-eight-year-old Wang, the mother of a fourth-grade primary school student in Beijing, works in scientific research — a job that brings her considerable stress, but at least allows her to frequently work from home. She, too, has drawn up a roadmap for her daughter’s educational development. But she is frustrated at her husband’s lack of participation in their child’s future.
“He thinks that I’m taking the wrong approach to our daughter’s schooling,” said Wang. “He says I’m not doing enough, but that he also can’t help out. He works [in education] in the suburbs and only comes home two or three times a week, usually around 8 or 9 p.m. He thinks I’m not doing a good job, but just stands there and judges me.”
Although several of my interviewees repeated Wang’s concerns, thankfully a few families are upending certain age-old patriarchal structures. Some younger, highly educated fathers have begun actively shouldering the task of educating their children. One mother I spoke to, surnamed Zhang, told me that when her husband — who holds a college degree in math — realized that their 6-year-old daughter had a head for numbers, he took it upon himself to develop the child’s burgeoning interest. “I still manage our daughter’s schooling … but sometimes I delegate specific tasks to her father,” Zhang said.
At first, Zhang felt that her husband was “really dumb,” as he lacked comparatively basic knowledge about how to treat children. But as he got familiar with it, Zhang gradually had her husband manage their daughter’s Math Olympiad classes, and her husband got more proactively involved in their daughter’s upbringing. “In the past, I would do everything, because I didn’t know how to delegate or lead,” Zhang said, smiling. “I couldn’t let go, but that just shows I lacked good management skills. But it’s better now. I’ve become a better manager.”
Yet Zhang’s family is a minor exception to the rule. Like most families, Zhang herself still bears most of the labor involved in her daughter’s upbringing; her husband participates only inasmuch as it reflects his personal skills. While it is undoubtedly positive that Zhang’s husband chooses to be a somewhat active participant, some mothers don’t even get that.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: Gao Jianping/VCG)