In China, ‘Reverse Parenting’ Is Turning the Tables on Unruly Kids
SHANGHAI — Late on a school night in June, Jin Xueli was again grappling with her 5-year-old son’s tantrum about watching his favorite cartoon, Paw Patrol. As in the past, she tried reasoning with him, but he only screamed and cried louder, refusing to sleep even well past his bedtime.
As she reached breaking point, Jin’s husband, Siwen, who’d immersed himself in parenting videos online, told her about an intriguing concept he’d come across called “fan xiang yu er,” or “reverse parenting.”
These videos showcased parents who had abandoned conventional disciplinary methods and instead embraced a radical approach that mirrored their children’s behavior to an extraordinary degree.
When their kids lay on the floor in an ice cream store, the parents did the same. If the children threw away a toy, the parents threw away others too. Some even went to extremes: putting their kids’ studies on hold to let them play video games for hours on end, just as their children desired.
Desperate for a solution, Jin decided to attempt her own experiment in reverse parenting.
She set the TV to play the same episode of Paw Patrol on loop. “If he wanted to watch the cartoon, he would get to watch to his heart’s content, and even beyond,” Jin tells Sixth Tone.
After watching wide-eyed for over an hour, the boy’s initial excitement slowly waned. As midnight approached, he grew increasingly bored. And each time he closed his eyes, his parents shook him awake.
By 2 a.m., when he could barely stay awake, Jin asked him to make a promise before switching off the TV — at bedtime, he had to go to sleep. “It’s been three months,” she says, “And he still remembers that night.”
Across China, this novel approach of reverse parenting has gained momentum in recent years, capturing the interest of countless parents, particularly the younger generation.
Past generations of Chinese parents often adopted a different approach towards their children. They relied heavily on punishments as a form of discipline, and rewards were only bestowed upon children when they exhibited “progress” in their behavior.
Such parents maintained a serious demeanor, rarely expressed affection openly, and held firm to the belief that they could never be wrong.
However, influenced by Western culture and a desire to forge closer bonds with their children, the post-’90s generation of parents in China is embracing a different perspective and parenting philosophy.
While some experts commend its approach, others caution against this way of parenting, highlighting its potential detrimental effects on children. They argue that while its intended goal is to discourage misbehavior, it may have adverse consequences, especially for young children.
The debate notwithstanding, this unconventional approach has gained significant traction, largely driven by the influence of social media platforms such as Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — and the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu.
But despite being seen by some as mere entertainment, reverse parenting has also ignited fierce discussion and controversy, with concerns emerging about the potential consequences of employing radical and largely untested parenting approaches.
Magic begets magic
Among the most popular examples of reverse parenting on social media is a seven-minute video on Douyin of a mother and her toddler out for a midnight walk.
Titled “only magic defeats magic,” the mother recorded how her daughter, who looks about 2 or 3 years old, insisted on playing outside at around 2.30 a.m.
The mother agreed, but made her daughter promise that she would play outside until sunrise. Her daughter readily agreed, and the duo went out.
At first, she was excited. “Remember how happy you are right now. Let’s wait and see. If you cry later, you should remember this moment,” the mother is heard saying in a calm voice.
At nearly 5 a.m., the daughter mumbles that she’s tired and wants to go home and sleep. Her mother refuses.
The video doesn’t reveal when they eventually went home that night. But it did go viral on the microblogging platform Weibo, garnering over 5 million views.
Online, the opinions were mixed.
Some users praised the mother’s calm demeanor. “She’s so patient. If it were me, I would just knock the baby out,” wrote one user.
Others, however, argued that her methods were extreme. “Shouldn’t the mother think about whether a little baby can even understand what ‘until sunrise’ even means?” wrote another user.
Jiang Lingling, a psychological counselor specializing in family therapy, tells Sixth Tone that reverse parenting shares similarities with traditional parenting, in that both involve power dynamics at their core.
“The mother agreed to let the girl go out, but the power of who decides when they return is still in the mother’s hands,” says Jiang.
Another counselor — Si Yamei — echoes a similar sentiment. She says the actual aim of “reverse parenting” is still to make children “dare not” to misbehave again. “But for children, especially the very young, it’s actually detrimental,” she says.
Si became aware of the phrase “reverse parenting” when young parents approached her to discuss the topic.
However, in practical cases, Si believes that the goal of parenting is to guide children in their healthy growth and encourage self-reflection in a positive manner, enabling them to better adapt to society.
Parents born after the 1990s differ from the older generations due to their improved material well-being. “The post-’80s generation still experienced material scarcity, so they know how their lives were getting better, and they could feel happy with such changes,” says Si.
“But the post-’90s generation is too protected. They haven’t experienced real frustration, and they are still kids themselves,” Si adds. “They are actually treating children in the same way any child would, using it as a means of retaliation.”
“We imagine that the post-’90s generation should be happier than the previous generation, but actually they have lost some genuine emotional experiences along the way.”
Cause and effect
For some parents, reverse parenting is a last resort.
In November 2022, a mother of a third grader wrote posts on Xiaohongshu to chronicle her son’s one-week hiatus from school, dedicated entirely to indulging in video games.
“We were so frustrated with his video game addiction. Our previous attempts, from heartfelt conversations to even resorting to physical discipline, failed to last beyond two days,” she wrote online.
The post also described how her son remained unmoved despite the teacher’s guidance and showed no interest in studying.
With no end in sight to her son’s all-consuming obsession, she decided to give reverse parenting a shot.
She implemented a strict set of rules for him: He would play video games for at least 16 hours each day, and write a 200-character review each time he lost.
Pushing the boundaries even further, she went as far as hiring a professional esports gamer on the fifth day to consistently outperform her son.
“It’s simply about letting the child try things based on their inner desires,” she told Sixth Tone, declining to be interviewed.
Cai Dan, executive director of the Center for Child Development and Family Studies at Shanghai Normal University, says reverse parenting has the potential to effectively educate children.
However, he emphasizes that for this approach to succeed, parents must genuinely trust and support their kids throughout the process.
“If the motivation is to punish the kids intentionally, like make them catch a cold or get hurt, it would be totally unacceptable,” says Cai.
Cai explains that the underlying principle of reverse parenting shares similarities with psychological therapies such as flooding therapy and aversion therapy.
Flooding therapy involves exposing individuals to their fears at a heightened level of intensity for a prolonged duration, while aversion therapy entails repeatedly associating undesirable behavior with discomfort or negative consequences.
But experts warn that such therapies require professional guidance in practice.
“It is crucial to assess whether they are delivering educational benefits to children or simply inflicting harm,” notes Cai. “If a child is not psychologically equipped to handle such therapy, it can have negative consequences.”
Li Yisheng from Ningbo, in the eastern Zhejiang province, claims she was among the first to post videos about reverse parenting on social media.
In July 2021, her first video garnered 450,000 likes on Douyin, after which she produced a series of cartoons under the title “A post-’90s mother’s reverse parenting guidance.”
In her first video, she speaks of how she managed to stop her then-2-year-old daughter misbehaving. “If the baby grabs food from your bowl, you could yell out loud to startle them. This way, the baby won’t know how to react,” she stated.
These ideas stemmed from her own experiences and her desire to be a different kind of mother from her own.
“When I became a mother, I didn’t think it through thoroughly. I simply saw my friends having babies and thought it was the right time for me too,” Li recalls. However, after becoming pregnant, she realized that it was more challenging than she had imagined.
“I suffered from severe morning sickness and threw up for five months. I also had excessive saliva in my mouth that I couldn’t swallow, so I had to carry a cup with me all day,” says 33-year-old Li.
Mentally unprepared, she gave birth to her daughter, and the intense pain made her hesitant to face the baby 24 hours a day.
However, one afternoon, as she saw her little infant sleeping beside her, she suddenly realized the bond between them.
“She’s exactly like me: expressive and a bit stubborn, yet easily satisfied by small surprises,” Li reflects. “When I think back to my own childhood, I want to shower her with all the love that I didn’t receive.”
According to Li, her parents’ generation — from the 1950s and ’60s — adopted a much tougher approach toward children.
“They always asked children to review their own flaws and mistakes. Even when I was bullied by classmates, they still scolded me instead of others,” says Li.
She explains that during her own upbringing, she wasn’t allowed to be too happy about small things, as it would often upset her parents.
“Why aren’t you studying? How did you score on the test? How can you be happy in this moment?” These were some of the questions she was asked whenever she expressed joy.
According to Li, the older generation lacked the ability to express themselves. “They believe that providing food and financial support is enough to express affection, but they never said it outright,” she rues.
Li shares her own experience of attempting to say “I love you” to her mother, only for her mother to dismiss it as “disgusting.”
These memories have deeply affected Li, and even after two decades, the emotional impact remains. Determined to break the cycle, she is committed to bringing her child up in a way that differs from her own parents.
However, as a professional vlogger, Li is aware of the importance of using popular hashtags like “reverse parenting” to drive traffic and attract a wider audience on social media platforms. She also acknowledges that some accounts may create sensational content just to gain more views.
“I saw a video of parents cooking a chicken that their child had raised as a pet and recording the child’s reaction when they revealed the truth,” she says. “That’s crazy, and it’s not what I want to tell my viewers to do.”
While managing her social media accounts, she also introduced other buzzwords in her video production. She created series such as “parenting: let it rot” and “parenting: perfunctory,” highlighting the tendency of parents to display their vulnerabilities to their children and rely on their babies to take care of them.
Executive director Cai further highlights that individuals born in the post-1990s era were often the sole child in their families, and thus had to learn parenting skills on their own.
On one hand, they aspire to rectify the challenges they encountered during their own upbringing, but, on the other hand, they harbor apprehensions toward facing new challenges.
According to Cai, the previous generations had a clear and straightforward parenting approach: study hard and enroll in a better school.
However, the present scenario offers parents many choices, such as public schools, private schools, international schools, or even integrated schools with combined curricula.
“This abundance of options leads to hesitation, uncertainty, and a fear of missing crucial opportunities that could potentially jeopardize their children’s future,” says Cai.
Xu Wanqing, a 32-year-old from Tianjin, also shares her daily interactions with her four-year-old daughter on Xiaohongshu. Her videos are a blend of reverse parenting and reflections on modern parenting challenges.
But often, she receives private messages from strangers criticizing her modern parenting approach.
“They said I’m discrediting the image of the post-’90s generation,” says Xu. She added that a video she shared of allowing her daughter to wear sandals on a snowy day for ten minutes triggered a wave of abusive messages.
“My ideal relationship with my daughter is that we could be best friends,” says Xu. “But sometimes I still find it challenging to control myself and I lose my temper, reverting to a more traditional and strict parenting approach.”
(Header image: baobao ou/VCG)