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    Do China’s ‘Left-Behind’ Children Have a Delinquency Problem?

    A number of high-profile incidents have shined a spotlight on minor misbehavior in China’s countryside. But a closer look at the data suggests that kids aren’t the problem.
    Apr 08, 2024#rural China#crime

    The tragic murder of a 13-year-old boy by his classmates in the northern province of Hebei earlier last month has once again raised public fears of rising delinquency among China’s 9 million “left-behind” children.

    Left-behind children are minors whose parent or parents have migrated for work and left them in the care of family in their home communities. Due to a mix of underdeveloped social and economic conditions in rural areas, combined with inadequate supervision and support from adults, scholars like Rachel Murphy have found left-behind kids fare worse than those who live with both parents in a wide range of metrics, from school performance to physical development and mental health. Their vulnerable situation has drawn significant public attention and garnered extensive media coverage. The media, in particular, has portrayed their lives in intricate detail, highlighting their feelings of exclusion and isolation, and at times, their delinquent behavior, while calling attention to the need for care resources in the countryside.

    However, most critics, and even advocates, tend to treat left-behind children as a homogenous group — one that is simply more at risk for getting involved in criminal activities because of their vulnerable condition. This risks oversimplifying the problem, and worse, stigmatizing left-behind children.

    For the record, there are no consistent findings that show left-behind children are at higher risk of criminality compared to non-left-behind children. But they are at a notably heightened risk of experiencing various forms of victimization, such as sexual assault, abuse, and neglect, compared to children living with two non-migrant parents, particularly in cases where the mother is the sole migrant or when both parents are working away from home.

    Indeed, if we look past the mere absence of parents due to migration, a more important factor emerges: the caregiving arrangements within families and in particular the parenting approaches they employ. For example, as scholar Chen Xiaojin found, when left-behind children are under the care of their mother or at least two grandparents, their propensity for involvement in delinquent and deviant behaviors is no different from that of children living with both parents.

    And just because left-behind children and their parents are physically separated, that doesn’t mean they all come from broken homes. For instance, scholars have noted that it is not uncommon for left-behind children to apply themselves at school in an effort to reflect better on their families and communities through academic achievement. Likewise, the current generation of migrant parents works hard to maintain connections with their children and fortify their relationships through the utilization of new technologies like video calls.

    Rather than treating left-behind children as a homogenous group, policy initiatives must become more targeted and precise. Beyond the conventional approach of promoting parent-child communication to bolster supervision and parent-child bonds, it is imperative to broaden the scope of policy solutions to encompass community building and education. This requires new investments in schools and rural governments to foster a collaborative and holistic framework of supervision with parents. In instances where direct parental oversight is deficient, schools and communities should assume a more proactive role. For example, certain regions have introduced full boarding schools to provide services for families in need. But it’s also important to implement a spectrum of protective programs, from raising awareness of bullying to rapid intervention and corrective measures taken by teams of professional social workers.

    Prioritizing the well-being of left-behind children, particularly those in rural areas, is paramount. However, it is equally crucial to avoid inadvertently stigmatizing this vulnerable group. When examining the public discourse about left-behind children in China, scholar Zou Wenxue and I found that media coverage tends to portray them as a kind of “other” existing in a different, abnormal world. Should these negative labels be internalized by left-behind children, it could have a negative effect on their self-perception and mental health.

    Recognizing this potential harm underscores the urgency of implementing targeted and actionable protective measures based on the specific factors and vulnerabilities influencing left-behind kids’ behavior, rather than treating deviance or even juvenile delinquency as a problem inherent to left-behind children as a whole. It is also imperative to consider more tailored interventions; increased funding for social work departments would allow them to cater to diverse family structures and offer more targeted support and services.

    Moreover, it is essential to recognize the external issues that shape individuals’ choices and actions, including economic conditions and cultural norms.

    The phenomenon of children being left behind by migrant parents is primarily rooted in economic factors. The lack of economic opportunities in rural areas leads working-age parents to seek better-paying jobs outside their hometowns in order to adequately provide for their families, while the financial burdens of raising and educating children make doing so all the more necessary.

    Culturally, China’s practice of collective parenting also influences the dynamics of these families. Whether in rural or urban areas, working-age parents are typically expected to earn a living while relying on their own parents to care for their children. This practice suggests that if children travel with their parents when they migrate for work, it necessitates relocating not only the children but also the elderly caregivers, something that can be difficult given urban areas’ higher cost of living.

    In other words, the issue of left-behind children in rural China is intricately linked to the country’s broader parenting culture and its costs. While several regions have recently eased residency requirements and even abolished household registration constraints, it is imperative to shift some of the focus from the household registration system to economic and cultural obstacles to family migration.

    China’s government has recently advanced slogans calling for “nurturing the young,” part of a broader push to prioritize the well-being of children. But as the issue of left-behind children and migrant children suggests, children’s well-being is inextricable from that of their families. Solely concentrating on children is not enough; equal emphasis should be placed on supporting families as a whole.

    Editor: Cai Yiwen, portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: VCG)