SHANDONG, East China — Huang Wenjuan never thought there was anything wrong with her approach to parenting until her teenage daughter stormed out of their house after a big fight. Huang and her husband searched all over the city that snowy February night, and eventually found her in the stairwell of their apartment building. “She could see us, and said she just wanted us to suffer,” the 40-year-old mother tells Sixth Tone.
The fight was the lowest point of a monthslong conflict that started when Huang demanded her daughter attend afterschool classes. Huang argued that it was what all the other students did, but her daughter said she didn’t need extra lessons to keep up in class. “I knew she was right, but her refusal challenged my authority as a parent, which made me so anxious that I cracked,” Huang recalls.
Raising a child in China comes with its own set of concerns. Parents tend to spoil their child — often their only child — while simultaneously putting them under immense pressure to do well in China’s competitive education system. Another worry is the amount of time children spend with indulgent grandparents, who are sometimes blamed for China’s burgeoning population of “bear kids” — a term for screaming children prone to tantrums. All in all, 95 percent of nearly 7,500 respondents in a 2016 survey said they felt anxious about their parenting.
The government shares these misgivings. To cope with increasing numbers of “overly indulgent and demanding” parents who valued grades more than “morals and abilities,” the Ministry of Education issued a guideline on education reform in 2015. It suggested establishing more services to guide family education — namely, in the form of parenting schools — to help parents cultivate a “rational educational philosophy.” A five-year plan released in 2016 required most kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools nationwide to organize classes for parents by 2020.
Local governments have heeded the call to educate moms and dads. In June, Beijing began sending regular text messages containing parental-guidance tips to 500,000 of the city’s families with school-age children. The southwestern megacity of Chongqing implemented the country’s first ordinance to promote family education in September of 2016, and last year admonished over 1,300 parents or guardians whose parenting the police deemed inadequate. Last year, Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, said it would force parents of juvenile delinquents to join parenting classes.
A parent takes notes during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
While Huang was looking for a solution to improve her relationship with her daughter, a friend told her about a parenting school in her city of Zoucheng. Every Wednesday evening, Huang and dozens of other parents — mostly mothers — show up at a garage-turned-studio to discuss books on parenting, under the guidance of a family-education instructor. People arrive with all sorts of problems, says Zhang Yuanyuan, the school’s organizer. When it had just started in 2016, the free classes only had a few attendees. “But now, the small classroom is jammed with over 30 parents, and some have to stand outside,” Zhang says.
After a few sessions, Huang says she realized that parents should respect children instead of imposing their will on them. “I really regret not giving my daughter enough space to display her own personality and be who she really wanted to be,” Huang confesses. “She couldn’t bear us anymore, and finally, at 14, exploded, which I now think is a good thing.”
Liang Xueqin, 44, has been taking the classes for the past nine months. “I come here with a heavy heart, and go home more relaxed,” she tells Sixth Tone after a session in which they discussed “Positive Discipline for Teenagers,” a book by scholars Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott that teaches parents to respect their children as individuals. “Actually, I’m aware of most of the book’s parenting theories, but just need an observer to remind me, to push me.”
Having grown up with three sisters and a father who would beat them for any perceived wrongdoing, Liang wants to raise her 16-year-old son in a healthier way. She dotes on her child, but she also pressures him to excel academically — something her parents never expected of her. “That’s why every time he had a dip in his grades, I’d be very anxious,” She says. “But now I’ve learned to accept his imperfections, his acts of rebellion, and his fluctuating grades.”
Elsewhere in Zoucheng, schools have drawn on the city’s history as the birthplace of ancient Chinese thinker and influential Confucian figure Mencius. His philosophy still heavily influences contemporary Chinese parent-child relationships.
An engraved monument that reads ‘the greatest mother of all,’ in reference to the mother of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, stands on the grounds of the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Zhao Yonghe — the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, a governmental organ in Zoucheng that promotes the study of Mencius — established a parenting school in February 2017. Before he became an official, Zhao was a teacher at a rural school. He always wondered why teachers needed years of training, whereas people could become parents without any education. “It’s terrible to think that many parents don’t even realize there are problems in their parenting,” he tells Sixth Tone in his office.
Xu Shuang is one of Mencius Research Institute’s full-time lecturers with over a decade of experience researching how ancient Chinese educated their children. She talks about a set of traditions and rules that were once passed down and improved upon in wealthy, extended families throughout generations. “The family itself is an educational institute,” Xu says. “I think that [this concept] is a great tradition that modern families need to inherit.”
Most Chinese are familiar with the legend of Mencius’ mother, who changed houses three times before finding a location she felt best suited her son’s upbringing needs. The story lives on in the form of an idiom, “Mencius’ Mother Moved Thrice,” used to describe Chinese parents expending limitless resources to provide their children with a good education. Zhao’s school draws on such classics of Chinese philosophy to develop parenting skills. “I think that the study of traditional culture should be used to improve people’s morality,” he says. “Here in Zoucheng, Mencius’ mother is a great example of a qualified parent. There’s no place better-suited for parenting schools than [our city].”
According to Zhao, parents in Zoucheng are proud of the city’s culture and attach great importance to their childen’s education, but they still mainly focus on grades. When asked about his own experience raising kids, Zhao says without hesitation that he has regrets. “I spoiled them and guilt-tripped them,” Zhao says. “I regret treating them like little kids when they were mature enough to make their own decisions, and also pressuring them to do things my way out of love.” Though Zhao says his twin daughters have become happy, well-adjusted young women, he hopes that he can help young parents avoid his mistakes. So far, more than 10,000 people have attended his lectures.
Zhao Yonghe, the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, gives a lecture on parenting in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
Zhou Li has been to Zhao’s lectures twice. He’s been struggling with how to discipline his 10-year-old son. He figured out what he was doing wrong when Zhao explained that children are “the shadow of their parents.” “Then, I started reading books instead of playing on my phone next to my son while he did his homework, and soon after, I noticed he was becoming much more focused,” says the 38-year-old. “It is possible that I am still not a qualified parent, but I am better than I was before.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Parents discuss a book during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone)