According to a 2015 report by Beijing Normal University, there are around 60 million “left-behind” children in China, accounting for roughly one-fifth of all Chinese youth. As parents leave their hometowns to pursue job opportunities, many of their offspring are forced to remain behind in the care of relatives.
These youth have been the topic of intense international debate in recent years. One way to ameliorate their situation is through coordinated social efforts by adding more jobs and allocating better educational resources for less developed areas. This is especially true in the countryside, which has taken the brunt of negative impact from economic changes without reaping much benefit from them.
However, we can further subcategorize these youth. “Left-beyond” children are a group who also lack proper parenting, albeit for different reasons — these are students who have been sent away by their parents to foreign countries to pursue their education.
In the 14 years I have been living in the United States, I have seen the stereotypical Chinese student transformed from poor postgraduates into arrogant teenagers who begin their American career in shiny new cars bought by wads of cash from their parents. These children are left isolated from their families in a far-off country. Lacking support and discipline, many of them abuse their freedom without any parental checks and balances.
Next we have the “left-beside” children. These are kids whose parents’ jobs keep them so busy as to effectively make them absent from the lives of their children. These children are typically very focused on their education, and out-of-school hours are spent in the company of tutors. In these families the father and mother are around but not fully functioning in their parental roles, instead believing a good education to be the most important thing they can gift to their children.
In these cases, many parental duties are outsourced to grandparents and family servants. This is detrimental to the overall development of the child, since these maids often focus only on the youngster’s basic needs, whether this be clothing or feeding them. Likewise, grandparents are often too old to provide proper guidance.
But what is causing so many parents to shirk their responsibilities? Many of them have a market economy mindset and consider it to be their primary duty to make as much money as possible, which is then delegated to the future of the child — their education. This is good economics, but bad parenting — it can be devastating for children, many of whom miss out entirely on the emotional intimacy that is best provided by a parent.
Chinese parents need to relax about formal education and try not to focus too much on the rat race. Getting into the best universities is nice, but it’s not essential for people to lead a healthy, happy, and fulfilled life. The world is packed with so-called “elites” whose best accomplishment is to have attended a top university.
Chinese parents need to focus their attention on their children. Learning comes not only from textbooks — it happens at dinner tables as much as in university classrooms. Adults must work harder on actually parenting their children instead of just throwing money at them.
Children need care and attention. Read with them; take them out to parks, lakes, and forests; play with them; teach them how to cook, clean, and stay organized. When conflicts arise, work them out together. When they are stressed, teach them how to cope. This is what it really means to be a parent.
Obviously, I am not the only one worried about the lack of proper parenting in China. Out-of-school training programs designed to educate both children and parents have been gaining more popularity in recent years. These programs — YouthMBA, Bund Education, and Boyakids, to name a few — seek to connect children with parent, and teach the adults new skills and attitudes about parenting.
The increasing success of these programs shows that parents are willing to learn — a wonderful sign of forthcoming change. I hope that this decade may be remembered, as the time when parents stepped up to the plate and eradicated the left-behind phenomenon.
(Header image: Left-behind children outside the Xianghe Primary School, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, June 19, 2015. Johannes Eisele/AFP/VCG)