Five years ago, when my daughter was still just months old, I received some unexpected good news: Rumor had it that China’s Ministry of Education was considering a proposal to give local authorities more leeway in setting the cutoff age for primary-school enrollment.
That may seem like a far-off concern for a mother of a 3-month-old baby, but since I had given birth in October, I was pleased at the time to learn that such a change might be in the works. China has traditionally mandated children be at least 6 years old by Aug. 31 in the year they wish to enroll, meaning my daughter will be almost 7 by the time she starts school. Yet while many Chinese parents continue to believe that the sooner a child starts school, the better, I’ve learned over time to be grateful that my now 5-year-old daughter will have an extra year to grow and learn before beginning her formal education.
Shortly after reinstating China’s college entrance exam in the late 1970s, parents nationwide seemingly reached a consensus: The earlier a child starts school, the greater their chance of succeeding in the country’s rigorous, exam-based education system. Starting early also means graduating early, pushing up the date when children can start working and contributing economically to their families.
Over the years, the pressure to get one’s child into school as early as possible has become so intense that some parents forge their child’s birthdate on their household registration form or pull strings to get around the rules. There have even been reports of mothers scheduling cesarean sections for late August so their children can make the deadline.
Girls were especially thought to be at a disadvantage if they started late. Growing up, my mother subscribed to the widespread theory that, because girls enter puberty earlier than boys, they’re more easily distracted from their studies by the physical and emotional challenges of adolescence. More broadly, Chinese parents have for decades lived in fear of their school-age children dating: Even puppy love is seen as taboo and a major hindrance to students’ academic success.
Having been born in April, I was seven months younger than my oldest classmates. I remember how my mother used to call herself lucky, because her daughter was among the youngest kids in the class yet still performed better than many of the older students. She also took great pride in my lack of interest in makeup and clothes. Even when I got into fights, it was clear she preferred the occasional bit of rowdiness to an interest in boys.
Thus, when my own daughter was born just a month after the cutoff, her grandparents sighed at the misfortune of her having to waste an extra year in kindergarten. And it’s not just the older generation who thinks this way. This February, a father in the eastern city of Nanchang made national headlines for his efforts to get the rules changed for his daughter, who was born on Sept. 2.
Although the Ministry of Education followed through on the rumors by declaring in 2017 that provincial-level education authorities would have the right to set their own enrollment cutoffs, only a few provinces and municipalities have actually taken advantage of this rule thus far. My own city, Shanghai, is not one of them. According to the city’s 2019 primary school enrollment notice, issued in early February, the cutoff for enrollment remains 6 years old as of Aug. 31.
But in recent years, as competition for spots at top primary schools has intensified, especially at elite private schools in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, some parents have started to see the disadvantages of the traditional emphasis on starting early. For preschool-age children, differences of even just a few months can mean significant gaps in cognitive skills, concentration, and the ability to express oneself. Parents of children born in June, July, or August — known as xiao yueling, or “little monthlings” — find themselves having to put in significantly more work to prepare them for rigorous entrance interviews in which they’ll be pitted against children almost a year older than them.
When my daughter started kindergarten — as one of the oldest students in a class comprised largely of little monthlings who had only just turned 3 — I remember her teacher bemoaning the maturity gap between the youngest and oldest pupils. While in other classes the average age of students might only be a few months higher, that still made enough of a difference that the teachers of those classes felt comfortable teaching classroom discipline or organizing activities. In my daughter’s class, the teacher said she and her assistant spent much of their time changing diapers.
My daughter, who started that year barely capable of putting food in her mouth, was thus thrust into the role of one of the oldest and most mature students in her class. But she rose to the occasion, quickly becoming a faster eater and even helping to feed her younger classmates after finishing her own lunch.
This maturity gap is even more apparent in primary-school math and reading preparatory classes — a near-necessity for children hoping to get into a top school. This year, the mother of a girl just eight months younger than my daughter told me how hard it was for her child to concentrate for 45 minutes straight and how she was barely able to retain any information from her classes. While my own daughter was the same way when she was 4, they’re currently in the same kindergarten class, meaning they’ll potentially be competing against each other for a place at a top school next year, despite the radically different limitations on the amount and type of information they can process.
There are signs that parents’ enthusiasm for getting their kids into school as early as possible is beginning to wane, especially in cities like Shanghai. A friend of mine confided in me that she intends to time her second pregnancy so the child is born in September, October, or at the latest November, in an effort to give them an edge. Her thoughts are shared by a number of users of the online forum Qianfan, which has sections dedicated to parenting and education. One user referred to her son, who was born in late August, as “a classic case of losing at the starting line.”
Although I believe that young children should be allowed to play, explore, and mature at their own pace, as a mother, I can’t pretend to be blind to the realities of an education system that culls nearly half of its middle school graduates before they get to high school. I never expected my daughter’s birthday to give her a leg up in life, but at a time when toddlers are expected to take preparatory courses just for a chance to get into a good primary school, I’m glad she has it.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: First graders take part in an initiation ceremony at a primary school in Jinjiang, Fujian province, Sept. 4, 2018. He Yuan/VCG)