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2021-07-14 12:28:38

SHANGHAI — Emerging from a sleek office building, Chu Liang looks the epitome of the stylish, capable working mom. But as soon as the conversation turns to parenting, the 36-year-old’s confident appearance breaks down.

“I think I’m a loser,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Chu’s relationship with her six-year-old son has fallen apart in recent months. The boy regularly acts out, messing up his bedroom and refusing to do as he’s told. When his mother scolds him, he stares back at her in icy silence.

Things haven’t always been this way. But everything changed, Chu says, when she started following a popular Chinese parenting influencer.

The blogger had attracted thousands of fans on Chinese social app WeChat by offering detailed study plans for young children. She claimed her methods had spurred her own son to extraordinary success. By the time he was six years old, the influencer said, he could read English at the level of a U.S. fifth-grader.

Now, my son hates English. And maybe me as well.

But the influencer’s approach was tough. She recommended parents created daily lists of homework tasks — which English books to read, for how long, and which comprehension questions to answer afterward. If the kids failed to complete the work, she hinted it sometimes helped to beat them.

Chu recalls feeling uneasy about striking her son. But, desperate for her kid to get a head-start in China’s ultra-competitive school system, she decided to give the influencer’s methods a try. It was a disaster.

“Now, he hates English,” she says. “And maybe me as well.”

Many Chinese parents have similar horror stories to tell. Parenting influencers offering tips on how to turn kids into academic superstars have become massively popular amid rising anxiety about China’s educational rat race. But many bloggers are accused of being a bad influence — misleading fans, peddling dubious theories, or even acting as fronts for corporate entities.

Bad parenting advice is becoming a bigger issue as writing and vlogging about parenting emerges as a lucrative career. On WeChat, thousands of parenting accounts have sprung up in recent years, with a large number focusing on teaching kids to read, speak English, and write Chinese compositions.

These influencers can make significant profits due to Chinese families’ willingness to splash large sums on their children — and especially on their children’s education.

More than one-fifth of Chinese families spend over 20% of their household income on their kids, according to a 2021 survey. China’s market for products targeting parents and babies is estimated to be worth an astonishing 3.2 trillion yuan ($495 billion).

For Chinese parents, the array of products and services on offer is often bewildering. This has opened the door for social media accounts offering to help parents navigate these choices. Many also sell goods to their followers directly, with some top players driving millions of dollars in sales.

A screen grab from a video in which parenting influencer Li Danyang shares her experience checking daily lists of homework tasks with her son, published July 2021. From @年糕妈妈 on Weibo

A screen grab from a video in which parenting influencer Li Danyang shares her experience checking daily lists of homework tasks with her son, published July 2021. From @年糕妈妈 on Weibo

In 2018, Li Danyang — a well-known parenting influencer who runs a WeChat account named Niangao Mamacompleted series B financing after attracting 16 million followers. Her account reportedly generates sales worth 60 million yuan each month.

China’s recent efforts to reform its education system have made influencers even more popular, according to Chang Hua, a Beijing-based mother. The authorities have been trying to make life easier for China’s overworked students, forcing schools to set less homework and end classes at a reasonable time. But this has simply led to many parents teaching kids late into the night themselves, Chang says.

“The schools aren’t offering parents what they want for their children,” says Chang. “There’s less homework and the difficulty level of classes in subjects like English is far too low. That’s why parents have to look elsewhere for adequate teaching resources for their children; to make sure they’re not left behind.”

Shanshan, a mother of two based in Shanghai, is one of the influencers benefitting from these trends. The 30-something set up a WeChat public account in 2018, and began sharing tips on teaching kids English. She now has over 120,000 followers.

Like many parenting bloggers, the former stay-at-home mom had little prior writing experience. However, she has attracted fans by emphasizing the academic achievements of her own children, and claiming her intense teaching methods were the reason behind their success. 

While he was still in kindergarten, Shanshan’s son was already spending hours learning English each day, reading dozens of books, listening to audiobooks, and completing reams of comprehension questions, the mother says.

Shanshan and her son ride the subway in Shanghai, May 2021. From @山珊_包包妈 on Weibo

Shanshan and her son ride the subway in Shanghai, May 2021. From @山珊_包包妈 on Weibo

“My children both have an average IQ and I’m an ordinary parent,” Shanshan tells Sixth Tone. “Their achievements are easy to replicate if parents can persist in following what I’ve been doing.”

Shanshan focuses on providing practical advice to her fans. In addition to sharing detailed study plans on her main feed, she runs dozens of chat groups where she interacts with parents directly. But she’s up-front about why she does it.

“It’s for profit,” she says. “I won’t do anything unless there’s a reason.”

On her account, Shanshan advertises a range of teaching materials and training institutes offering online language lessons. Though she insists that she only works with brands that she genuinely respects, she’s also unapologetic about her commercial ambitions.

Many WeChat parenting accounts write to create anxiety among parents.

“Many WeChat parenting accounts write to create anxiety among parents, so as to better promote their products — I don’t think that’s unethical,” she says. “Every industry uses this method to create demand; look at the cosmetics and fitness industries.”

Many parents, however, are fed up with the cynical attitudes of some influencers. Chang, the Beijing-based mother, says it has been sad watching her favorite blogger start to shill products that are totally unrelated to education.

“She sells everything from daily necessities to toilet seats,” says Chang. “I decided to unfollow her.”

Some parenting blogs have faced more serious accusations. In April, the industry was rocked by revelations that several WeChat accounts ostensibly run by ordinary parents were in fact controlled by the same education technology company. 

“It was like an earthquake hitting WeChat parenting influencer circles,” says Shanshan. “I was also approached by the company (to publish their content on my account), but I refused simply because I’m very lazy.”

For parents who rely on the advice offered by parenting influencers, the news was devastating, says Yan Yiling, another mother who lives in Beijing.

“You follow an account mostly because they’ve already brought up a child with an excellent academic record,” says Yan. “Now, you’re telling me these success stories are just lies — that they made them up to make me buy this and that. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Another high-profile scandal involved Liuma Luoluo, a parenting influencer with 670,000 followers on Chinese social app Weibo. 

A photo posted by Liuma Luoluo shows her younger child reading a book she recommended on her Weibo feed, July 2021. From @六妈罗罗 on Weibo

A photo posted by Liuma Luoluo shows her younger child reading a book she recommended on her Weibo feed, July 2021. From @六妈罗罗 on Weibo

She made her name by arguing parents should build close relationships with their children and encourage their kids to be creative from a young age. Earlier this year, however, it emerged the influencer had lived apart from her eight-year-old daughter for years.

Liuma Luoluo later admitted she’d been so busy with her social media work, she had left her daughter with her parents in central China’s Henan province — an eight-hour drive from her home in Beijing. The child later developed behavioral issues and was sent to a martial arts boarding school in Henan.

Chang has first-hand experience of how misleading some parenting influencers can be. A few years ago, she signed up her daughter for online English lessons recommended by a WeChat account she followed. Not only were the lessons ineffective, but the company’s aggressive sales tactics also shocked her, she says.

“The account was trying to turn the parents who had purchased this class into their sales staff,” says Chang. “I was told that I’d be offered a commission if I got other parents to pay for the classes. That made me feel awful.”

Young parents are especially vulnerable to being exploited by unscrupulous accounts because they’re often new to parenting and early years education, Chang says.

“After they’re brainwashed by the people running those groups, they’ll gradually accept their ideas and feel everything they say is correct,” says Chang. “They’ll follow their methods to educate their own children, but some may end up wasting their kids’ time. In the worst cases … you might end up destroying a child.”

Yet, despite her bad experiences, Chang continues to follow 10 parenting accounts on WeChat, studying each post religiously. She’s determined for her second-grader to speak fluent English one day. But there are few language schools near her suburban home, meaning she has to source all her child’s teaching materials herself.

“I don’t want to waste time and energy taking my daughter to classes (in central Beijing),” says Chang. “I’d rather spend it reading with her.”

For influencers like Zhao Xiaohua, the responsibilities that come with writing about parenting can be daunting. She started a WeChat blog five years ago, simply intending to document her experience reading English-language books with her daughter. The Beijing-based mother now has over 180,000 followers and employs six people to help answer all her fans’ queries.

A screen grab from a video in which Zhao Xiaohua and her daughter Emma introduce phrases related to the Year of the Ox, published 2021. From 晓华亲子英语 on WeChat

A screen grab from a video in which Zhao Xiaohua and her daughter Emma introduce phrases related to the Year of the Ox, published 2021. From 晓华亲子英语 on WeChat

“Honestly, I didn’t dare share my thoughts about teaching and parenting at the beginning,” Zhao tells Sixth Tone. “I wasn’t sure how effective my teaching methods might be for kids other than my own child.”

Zhao has invested significant effort in studying early years education theories. But unlike many peers, she refuses to offer cut-and-paste study plans for her fans to follow, even though many beg her to do so. 

There’s no point ensuring your child succeeds academically, if they’re no longer willing to talk to you.

“I believe each child is different, and parents should tailor-make plans for their own kids,” she says. “But the reality is parents need certainty — they want us to tell them exactly what to do. Most of the parents aren’t good at making those judgments on their own.”

These days, the WeChat blog is Zhao’s full-time career. She generates revenue by selling English books and hosting training courses for young children through the account. But she still makes a point of pushing back against some influencers’ gung-ho attitude toward language learning.

“The bottom line for us is that parenting or education should never destroy the parent-child relationship,” she says. “You should never make your child anxious or unconfident. There’s no point ensuring your child succeeds academically if they’re no longer willing to talk to you.”

Back in Shanghai, Chu has come to realize the wisdom of those words. She’s still uncertain how to repair her broken relationship with her son or inspire him to learn English. But she knows forcing him to study won’t achieve either goal.

“Maybe it works on kids who are more obedient and can endure learning under a high degree of pressure from a young age,” she sighs. “But that’s not my child.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A girl reads books at home in Anyang, Henan province, 2019. IC)