When my son was not quite half a year old, I received a curious telemarketing call. The person on the other end of the line was selling classes for teaching infants how to crawl. Stressing the importance of crawling early for an infant’s brain development, she proudly informed me that every child in their program — which cost 10,000 yuan ($1,400) — had learned the skill within two months of starting class.
As someone with a Ph.D. in child development and education, I felt confident passing on the opportunity — children naturally learn to crawl between five and nine months of age. But the calls kept coming. In the two years since, I’ve fielded calls selling classes on everything from swimming to “sensory integration therapy” and even a compliance class.
Chinese parents take their children’s educations seriously. For all the public anxiety about “involution,” “chicken blood” parenting, and black-market tutoring, the market for educational services remains huge. But there’s a big gap between an afterschool tutoring class and one claiming to teach infants how to crawl. With each phone call and overheard conversation about the best pre-preschool training classes, I grew more puzzled: Who is buying these classes — and why?
To find out, I decided to sign my now toddler up for a few trial lessons. The first class we attended was an art course taught entirely in English. The center was decorated in a Western style and festooned with English-language signs. The staff took pains to emphasize that all lessons were taught by foreign teachers as part of what it called “immersive English pedagogy.” They promised to simultaneously surround our toddlers in art and English. Why not kill two birds with one stone?
The class began with a foreign teacher using English to tell the four children present, all of them between two and four years of age, what to do. First, they were to roll the provided plasticine substance into a thin tube, then join the ends to create a ring. After this, they should cut out triangles from colored construction papers and wind a steel wire into a spiral. Even in Chinese, these tasks would have been much too difficult for some of the children’s level of development. In English, only the four-year-old — who at least had a foundation in the language — could make out anything the instructor was saying. The other kids, my son included, were all confused.
In the end, the parents did their best to translate while also busily following the teacher’s instructions. The children, understandably, were disengaged: Some wandered off; others started playing with pots of paint.
After an hour, and with the help of the teacher and parents, the children completed “their” artworks, all of which looked pretty good. The teacher then had each child pose for a photo their piece — recreating the pictures of happy, successful children showing off their achievements and progress used in the center’s promotional materials and on social media.
The exercise class we attended went little better. Six toddlers and their parents sat in a circle as the trainer — who referred to himself as having a background in “pro sports” — explained and then demonstrated several actions. Then, with the help of their parents and teaching assistants, the children lined up and performed each set of actions in a circuit.
Long periods of waiting around and explanations that weren’t suitable for small children quickly led to them losing interest. The two assistants spent much of their time stopping the restless kids from playing with things they shouldn’t be and encouraging those who’d become distracted to keep up. Ironically, the kids would probably have burned off more energy playing outside their homes. All I learned was how to protect young children’s spines when they do a forward roll.
After the class, one of the center’s salespeople earnestly explained that my son was at a “critical age for motor development.”
“By training his motor skills now, not only will he receive physical benefits, but it will also improve his brain development,” she added. Then she gave me a presentation on the latest neuroscience research.
A friend who works in early education once summed up the industry thusly: “The courses may be for the children, but it’s the parents who decide whether to pay for them.” If parents of school-age children are focused on their kids’ studies, the worries of parents of younger children are all-encompassing. These worries have grown more acute in recent years, as new parents are bombarded from all sides with articles, videos, and other media preaching the virtues of “scientific parenting.” The idea that children’s futures are determined in their first three years of life has become an article of faith among contemporary Chinese parents — and early education centers, with their talk of “critical ages” and “cognitive science”— are happy to cater to their’ worst fears.
While the jury is still out on just how much, if anything, youngsters get out of these classes, their appeal to parents is rather intuitive. Take, for example, the English-language art course I mentioned earlier. The elegant surroundings, the promise of advanced teaching concepts from overseas, and the speed with which the teacher ran through high-level content all make the parents feel their class fees are money well spent.
This has been reinforced by the emergence of the scientific parenting discourse, which strips parents of their sense of authority and control over their children’s education. They have become willing to transfer part of their parenting role to institutions equipped with scientific concepts and educational authority.
Every class is presented as grounded in science. Studying art as a toddler unlocks the right hemisphere of your child’s brain. English teaching centers emphasize research showing that a child’s early years are a critical period for language acquisition. Even swimming classes are sold as good for brain development: Training institutions claim that 1-year-olds are in a key period for sensory development, in which the pressure of the water can stimulate a child’s senses and boost their brain development. I haven’t even mentioned the toddler “brain training” classes focused specifically on boosting your baby’s intelligence quotient.
Those in the early childhood education industry are well aware of this situation, and actively play off it. Every time I turn down a class offering, I have this nagging feeling that I’m a bad mother who doesn’t care about her son’s development.
But there is another factor at play here: the shifting of childcare responsibilities back onto individual households, and the challenges that has brought parents, and especially mothers. Despite my misgivings about early education providers and the tactics they use, I eventually signed my son up for an art class — albeit one taught in Chinese. The course is relatively simple, suits his current development level, and uses games and stories to keep the kids interested, but the main reason I chose it was because the parents don’t need to get involved. For a busy mother who doesn’t have family members or a nanny to help out, an hour of freedom each week is priceless.
This is a common consideration among the parents I’ve spoken to. It’s not that they want to push their kid so hard. But, in the absence of age-appropriate public childcare resources, these lessons are at least better for the kids than sitting at home watching TV with their grandparents.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Mothers and children attend an early childhood education class in Beijing, 2019. Yang Yi/Beijing Youth Daily/VCG)