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    The Not-So-Dysfunctional Lives of China’s ‘Left-Behind’ Children

    Contrary to popular portrayals of broken families, kids in migrant households want to make their parents’ sacrifices pay off. They just face bigger barriers to doing so.

    It’s been nearly six years since four siblings in an impoverished corner of the southwestern Guizhou province drank poison and died — the result of an apparent suicide pact made after they were essentially abandoned by their parents. The tragedy shocked the nation and brought renewed attention to China’s millions of “left-behind” children: kids of migrant workers who are left in the countryside, typically in the care of family members, while their parents earn money elsewhere. The details of the Guizhou case were extreme, but representative of the ways media outlets and even researchers depict left-behind children as hopeless victims of the reform era’s massive internal migrations and the attendant breakdown of family values.

    These narratives contain a grain of truth, in particular regarding the structural barriers that prevent the children of migrants from enjoying a “normal” childhood. However, they also reinforce a series of deeply ingrained and interrelated stereotypes of rural migrant families as dysfunctional units, including traumatized left-behind children, irresponsible young migrant parents, and inattentive or backward grandparents. These stereotypes are pervasive in Chinese society, but rather than help address or call attention to the underlying problems with migrant parenting, they often simply contribute to a vicious cycle depriving migrant families and children of self-confidence and instilling in them a sense of inferiority.

    They’re also misleading. Many popular stereotypes of left-behind children and their families are derived from extreme cases like the above-mentioned Guizhou mass poisoning, but the evidence from nationally representative data and surveys does not bear them out. There is weak evidence of academic underachievement and psychological dysfunction among left-behind or migrant children. A study co-conducted by Peking University and the University of California, Los Angeles found that, although migrant families are physically separated, they remain socially intact, and the decision to work away from home actually indicates a stronger, rather than weaker, commitment to the welfare of the migrants’ children.

    My own research reached a similar conclusion: The cognitive and socio-emotional development of left-behind children and children in rural two-parent families was not that different. In particular, contrary to the popular belief that migrant parents have little time or energy to care about their children’s academic performance, I found that migrant families displayed a similar style of child-centric parenting to the country’s urban middle-class families, in which supporting, caring for, and educating one’s children was of paramount importance. And like their urban middle-class counterparts, rural migrant parents expected their children to be academic high achievers with a bright future.

    Only, unlike urban middle-class parents, with their well-paid jobs and access to the more generous safety net available to those with urban household registrations, rural parents must negotiate instability, discrimination, and exclusion as second-class citizens in urban China. The gap in Chinese adolescents’ development is not so much about how many parents one grows up with. Rather, the real gap resides in the type of environment one grows up in: rural or urban.

    Take Cheng’s family, for example. Born in 2001, his parents left him in their village under the care of his grandparents until second grade. Then, when Cheng was about 8 years old, his parents realized that in three years of rural schooling he had never learned how to write his name. They soon quit their factory jobs and relocated to the county seat near their home village, where they enrolled Cheng in a local public school. They later paid for him to attend an expensive private junior middle school.

    Cheng’s father worked on construction projects in town, and his mother held a part-time job in a retail store. In our interviews, they expressed keen hopes for Cheng to one day test into a military university, which they saw as guaranteeing him a life of secure employment and good benefits. The story illustrates a common thread I heard again and again throughout my fieldwork, in which parents’ concern for their children’s education prompted drastic readjustments in migration plans and living arrangements.

    Grandparents, too, are not the scapegoats they are often made out to be in popular narratives of struggling left-behind kids. Grandparents played a role in caring for their grandkids in the majority of the 40 families that participated in my study. While their physical fragility, lack of education, and unfamiliarity with modern schooling meant they could fall short of the intensive parenting ideal, many still worked hard to care for their grandchildren, whether by looking after them on a day-to-day basis, helping fill the void of the parents’ absence, or simply bonding with them.

    A few relatively better-educated grandparents even spent time educating their kids. Another left-behind child I interviewed said her grandfather — a junior high graduate and a retired village cadre — had taught her a significant number of Chinese characters before she started school.

    In a situation reminiscent of the children of Mexican migrants to the United States, children of migrant families in China often understand their relationship with their parents and grandparents through the framework of indebtedness. In migrant families, parents’ out-migration for work was often perceived not as abandonment, but as a kind of sacrifice. Migrants’ inferior positions as second-class citizens in cities only strengthened this impression of parental sacrifice. Adolescents were frequently reminded of their parents’ harsh working lives, whether through weekly phone calls with their parents or their grandparents’ own constant reminders.

    For those who had witnessed firsthand their parents’ hardships in the cities, the perception of sacrifice was even more concrete, and invoked a profound sense of indebtedness. A fifth grader I interviewed in the central province of Hunan burst into tears when describing a trip to his parents’ place in Guangzhou. “It was so hot, and they lived on the top floor,” he recalled. “We were sweating all the time and showering was useless. … That’s when I realized why mom and dad set such high standards for my study and are so strict.”

    The children of these families tended to suppress their longing for a family reunion and stability in favor of more positive understandings of their relationship with their parents. More importantly, they strove to succeed in school as a way of reciprocating their parents’ sacrifices by presenting them with a good report card.

    China’s rural migrant families are tremendously resilient, self-reliant, and committed to the success of their children, not just for their kids’ sake, but for the good of the entire family. Still, there is little individual families can do to break down the steep structural barriers they face, including institutional discrimination, precarious employment, unequal access to educational opportunities, and rural-urban development gaps that suppress the educational achievement of rural students as a whole. To fully tap the potential of its millions of left-behind children, China must stop blaming parents for their inadequacies and start undertaking systematic policy overhauls.

    Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: An 8-year-old boy sits on his bed in Weining County, Bijie, Guizhou province, March 2018. Chen Jie/People Visual)