Lights, Camera, Classroom: Big Mother Is Always Watching
The wide-angle image from the surveillance camera up on high is washed out, silent, and freezes intermittently. Below, the staff at this nursery school in eastern China are aware of the many “eyes” always looking down, always watching.
In her office in Weifang, in the eastern Shandong province, 29-year-old Luo Huan worriedly glanced at the surveillance footage on her phone — it tracked her two-year-old daughter Lili at school in real-time through a smartphone app.
On a phone screen, Lili was only as big as her thumb, but Luo was still on edge. Watching the live feed in April, Luo noticed her normally naughty daughter was uncharacteristically quiet, with her head lowered while picking at her hand. It was almost as if she’d been wronged but didn’t dare speak up. The older children were outside for physical exercises, leaving her daughter alone in class.
Luo isn’t the only one monitoring her child in school. Over the last few years, a string of child abuse cases in kindergartens across China triggered a public outcry. With teachers and parents anxious about preschoolers, surveillance cameras in schools surged.
But though livestreaming every child as they learn, eat, play, or nap hasn’t really allayed fears, more and more private nurseries and kindergartens have made the footage available to parents. And despite opposition from early childhood education experts, livestreams connected to parents’ phones have only become increasingly popular.
For parents like Luo, being able to monitor their children, who may not yet be able to express themselves well, offers a sense of security. But the trend has left preschool teachers troubled. Their already difficult job is complicated more by the increasingly stringent demands from parents, forcing some young teachers to even quit the profession.
Seven days of surveillance
Luo Huan’s daughter spent just seven days at her first nursery school. That’s all the time it took Luo, who monitored her daughter on camera throughout, to pull her daughter out. The school had a camera installed on the classroom ceiling, which streamed the feed to parents’ mobile phones.
Access to the livestream cost 15 yuan ($2) every month, and Luo was quick to sign up. “Without that camera, there would be so many things I wouldn’t have known,” she says.
Luo says she stayed home after Lili was born and wanted to return to work after her daughter turned two. But reluctant about leaving her daughter with her mother-in-law, Luo decided instead to admit her to the nursery close to their apartment.
“The other kids only learn to crawl in 6 or 7 months,” says Luo. “My daughter could already climb at 4 months and started walking at 8 months. Only a little after her first birthday, she could already climb a toddler’s jungle gym. She doesn’t like to take naps; she always plays and is constantly asking for something to do.”
It’s why her daughter’s listless behavior — not laughing or fooling around, all caught on surveillance camera — in her nursery school bothered Luo.
Luo says she also noticed once during the livestream that a female teacher had curled up on a small bed during the children’s naptime, “spooning” a small boy while playing on her mobile phone. The phone constantly rubbed against the sleeping boy’s face.
At the time, Luo decided against reporting the incident on a WeChat — China’s social app — group for parents, on the off chance that she might have misunderstood what she saw on screen.
But she couldn’t stop worrying. One morning, Luo turned on the phone and saw Lili exiting the school bathroom alone, but with a waddling gait. It was patently clear to Luo that she’d accidentally wet herself.
Again, Luo thought about reporting her observation to the teachers in the WeChat group. She recalls thinking to herself, “Should I wait and see? Am I being too quick to judge the teachers?”
A few hours later, none of the teachers had noticed Lili’s awkward gait, and her daughter didn’t ask for help, either. Luo finally chose to bring it up in the chat group.
Another day, Luo sent Lili to school in training pants. But when she picked her up, she wasn’t wearing the training pants anymore. That day, Luo had spent little time looking at the surveillance footage and asked her daughter what had happened.
Lili just cried and repeated one line: “All the other children said training pants are bad.”
When asked, the teacher told Luo that since children of Lili’s age were able to go to the bathroom themselves, the teacher decided to take the training pants off. That answer left Luo even more anxious. Had the teacher changed her pants in front of the entire class?
When she was interviewed, Luo had planned to lodge a complaint about the nursery. But if she wanted evidence, she would have had to ask the nursery again for the surveillance footage.
For Luo, it was the last straw. From her daughter’s lethargy in class to the teacher playing on her phone during the students’ naptime and from Lili wetting herself to the training pants incident, the live feed from the surveillance cameras was all she needed.
Seven days after her daughter started preschool, Luo decided, no matter what, she had to get her daughter out of that nursery.
For parents of preschool children, it’s not just security that worries them but that their young children cannot accurately communicate their feelings and experiences.
On the Q&A platform Zhihu, a user asked in 2017: “Why can’t kindergartens offer real-time monitoring for parents?” Two years later, Zhang Hai, a father in Xi’an, in the northwestern Shaanxi province, replied that he considered letting his son wear a miniature camera to his school, which at the time offered no real-time surveillance.
Zhang told The Paper: “Before bed, he’d tell me that he’d bumped his head, or I’d find scratches on his body. He’d say he didn’t know what had happened. Sometimes, he’d explicitly tell me that other kids had bullied him, but he wouldn’t be able to explain how it unfolded.”
Since he’d heard nothing from the school about such incidents, Zhang wondered if his son’s teachers had warned against telling parents about such incidents.
But Zhang was wary of stirring up trouble with the teachers, afraid they might target his son to spite him. Once, he mustered the courage to ask the teachers about a small injury he noticed on his son. But they merely responded that they hadn’t clearly seen what had happened.
After reconsidering the miniature camera idea, Zhang realized it might not help, either, since it might have made teachers uncomfortable. “Would you be willing to have people scrutinizing your every single move for the entire day?” he says.
Another Zhihu user Qu Meng recalls the first day she sent her two-year-old son to nursery school. That afternoon, when she picked him up earlier than usual, she heard her son wailing, running, and crying out for her from the floor above.
Qu says, “I got in touch with the teacher later that day, who said they’d attempted to comfort him but seemingly hadn’t succeeded.” Since it was her son’s first day at school, Qu was yet to receive access to the live feed.
But once the feed was available, Qu says there was much to trigger her anxiety — children milling around without guidance, teachers not refilling children’s cups with water, or even students running for the door to try and go home.
Qu says she always brings up such incidents with teachers the moment she spots them on the surveillance video. As a consequence, she suspects the teachers think she’s a nuisance and a nit-picker.
With her son due to start kindergarten next year, Qu has already begun looking closely at nearby institutions, going so far as to check the directors’ WeChat feeds.
One such director had shared a video of children being made to belly dance, which again sent her heart racing. “How could they think this is OK?” she says.
With more than a decade of teaching experience, Lin Yue is now a headteacher at a kindergarten in Jinan, Shandong. In a 2019 post on Zhihu, she listed some comments from parents in group chats for kindergarten classes offering real-time surveillance.
“How come the teacher fed the other children and not mine? How come the teacher never asked my child a question? How come the teacher only held the hand of the child closest to her when out on an excursion?”
“My child was twisting and turning in their seat during class — obviously they needed to use the toilet. How come the teacher didn’t even notice that? When my child woke up from a nap and didn’t want to put on their shoes, the teacher just gave them some instructions and then went to take care of the others. Instead of watching over them or putting their shoes on for them, the teacher only came back to check up on them later on...”
In Lin’s experience, such observations from parents were usually followed by various requests: that the teacher must ask their child more questions or that the teacher must take their child to the toilet.
According to Lin, most parents in group chats have a positive attitude, but there are always a few who are louder. Tired of the constant harassment, many young preschool teachers have chosen to leave their jobs, she says.
While some parents believe teachers eventually grow indifferent to children after spending so much time around them, kindergarten teachers underscore that parents are sometimes “unprofessional.”
Lin says some parents see their children twisting in their seats and immediately jump to the conclusion that they need to go to the toilet, which isn’t necessarily true. “It’s just an understanding that parents have formed based on how their children act at home,” she says.
Lin explained that early childhood teachers have their own way of dealing with specific problems. For example, when a child cries, they take the child out into the hallway to cry freely, which is sometimes outside the surveillance cameras’ field of vision. Teachers even reassure such students, saying, “No matter what, the teacher loves you.”
She says she even encourages children to name their emotions: “Are you angry? Are you sad or disappointed?” She then observes which word the child reacts to. Some children will stop crying upon hearing the word “disappointment,” or they’ll suddenly burst into tears.
Lin says she also knows some teachers who majored in early childhood education, and excel in many subjects, but irate parents call out every single tiny mistake they make in class on WeChat. “It’s very unfair,” says Lin.
Sometimes, surveillance video may even lead to misunderstandings. For example, if several children burst into tears at the same time, it may seem to parents that the teacher prioritized one over others.
But according to Wang Jia, a teacher with decades of experience at a Shanghai public kindergarten school, sometimes giving some children the cold shoulder is the only method that works. “Nine out of 10 times, very young children cry because they’re homesick,” she says.
Some students, Wang says, are used to being doted on at home, adding, “And when they arrive, they’ll roll about on the floor wailing. You try and get them to settle down, but they won’t listen. You drag them into the classroom, and they run back out.”
On such occasions, Wang says, teachers shouldn’t ask the child if they miss home, or they’ll never stop crying. All one can do is give them a chair to sit on and calm down. Teachers may also try and scare them a little.
Once, she said to a student, “You go into that small room and think by yourself for a bit. If you don’t want to be a part of our class, you can leave and join the neighboring class.” The child wiped away the tears and eventually calmed down.
Where Wang works, the school offers no real-time monitoring, making it hard for parents to acquire surveillance footage.
“It’s not just fights between kids... All kinds of chaos gets caught on those cameras — how can we make that available to parents? Some parents think teachers always give attention to other children and not their own. But if one student always raises their hand in class, we’ll obviously let them answer more often,” she says.
After decades in the profession, Wang’s main takeaway is simple: “We need to establish a united front between families and kindergartens.” She believes parents shouldn’t ask their children who’ve just started kindergarten, “Did the teacher scold you today?” Instead, they should tell them kindergarten is a good place, and they should be happy to go there.
Headteacher Lin Yue says she spends a lot of time writing “family-school communication logs”: a tool she uses to reassure parents once she’s done comforting their children.
One girl always complained to her parents that Lin didn’t like her. But the girl’s mother later told Lin that life at home was difficult and that she herself found it hard to smile at home. By saying the teacher didn’t like her, the girl may have just wanted her mother’s attention.
Despite the constant engagement, some parents inexplicably hold grudges against teachers. For example, a father once said his daughter had lost her scarf in kindergarten and hounded Lin until she found it.
Later, the father sheepishly apologized: “My daughter was chosen to be class captain for two consecutive years — it’s only when she started your class that she wasn’t picked. I thought maybe you didn’t like her.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom. According to Lin, some children warmly express their love for her to their parents. When she once returned to school after a brief illness, some parents sought her out to say, “You came back! My kids keep saying that you’re the best.”
A rock and a hard place
At most kindergartens across China, parents inevitably want more attention for their children, but a teacher’s capacity to focus is limited.
Lin Yue believes that even with an abundant budget, a kindergarten school can’t blindly increase the number of teachers per class to ensure every child is doted on. If the class is made up of 4 and 5 year olds, with two teachers and a childcare worker, the ideal number of students is around 25.
There’s also a clear imitation effect between young children: they are not only taught by teachers, but also learn from each other. In a class of 25, there are bound to be a few kids who stand out. If the teacher seizes the opportunity to say to them, “You’re awesome! You’re doing so well,” the other children will want to play with them and emulate them.
Wang says she’s sometimes so exhausted that she just wants to lie down the moment she gets home. When her daughter was still young, she’d beg Wang to tell her stories. But having spent the whole day telling stories, Wang just wanted to leave her daughter to listen to stories on a cassette tape by herself.
Luo Huan from Weifang says she understands the difficulties that preschool teachers face. Before Lili was born, she taught at an early childhood institution specializing in English.
She recalls one child who sometimes hit others. When she tried to tell him off, he sometimes even tried to hit her. In the end, she could only persuade the other children to be careful around him.
Today, her own daughter is still learning self-control. Once, she put Lili down for a moment at the entrance to the nursery toilet and turned away for a second. When she looked back, Lili had already got into a fight with another child, and the two were wailing away.
Other parents waiting to pick up their children gathered around, with some attempting to comfort Luo in her state of panic. But Luo didn’t want to be comforted — that only made her feel more humiliated. She just wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
Luo’s past experiences have made her empathize with teachers. She remembers the frustration of seeing other parents snap at teachers in their group chat. “In these nursery classes, there are only a dozen or so kids per class. But all parents want to be a part of the group chat, so there are now more than 40 people in there,” she says.
All things considered, she’s still grateful Lili’s previous nursery offered real-time surveillance, as it at least allowed her to “detect problems” in time to prevent further harm. She’s now picked a new nursery for her daughter — one that also offers surveillance.
Luo continues to watch her daughter on her phone screen. “It’s mostly because I’m worried that she’ll bully other children.” One afternoon, she saw Lili pushing other children into the wall as they waited in line together. Soon enough, they pushed back, leading to utter havoc.
Luo felt guilty. That day, after work, she bought cupcakes and sent them to the nursery. The teacher asked Lili to hand the cupcakes out to the other children as she told them, “Lili is young, so everyone must take good care of her. Isn’t that right?”
The children obediently agreed.
Reporters: Ge Mingning, Chen Boyuan, Chen Zhaolin
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: A man looks at a sample surveillance camera system for kindergartens at China International Intelligent Education Exhibition in Beijing, 2015. People Visual)