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A heavy burden to bear

CHEN XUEJIN | 2018-04-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A mother photographs her daughter on a street in Beijing. To children of ordinary families, the long-term company of parents has gradually become an extravagance. Young parents would be considered conscientious for keeping their kids company after a hectic day’s work. (CHINA DAILY)


Most Chinese people are accustomed to seeing childrearing institutions like early education centers and children’s playgrounds in shopping malls as well as behaviors such as antenatal language training, English learning at the age of 2, reading stories from cartoon books, and slogans like “winning at the starting line.”

From the historical point of view, we can find that the childrearing culture in China is undergoing a slow transformation. For example, scientific parenting approaches have taken shape and prevail while cooperation among family members in childrearing differs from that in the past, kids are being educated at an earlier age, early education has been commercialized and marketized, and young parents are universally anxious.

The transformation results from multiple factors, such as changes in family structure and division of labor, development of neuroscience and media technology, social stratification, and intensifying competition.


Changing ideas of childrearing
In traditional Chinese society, childrearing had at least two models. Children of the royal family, officials and the gentry learned about Chinese classics, ethics, rites and arts suited to the social order at an early age in order to maintain certain cultural advantages.

In ordinary families, parents didn’t have concrete and systematic educational ideas. Due to life pressures, most kids took part in production activities and public life of adults, growing up to be people like the previous generation under the influence of apprenticeship and daily etiquette.
The educational stratification was in essence a way to maintain the existing social order by inheriting different cultures in different strata.

History scholar Zuo Songtao noted that there was no well-knit, organized official public education system in traditional China until the late Qing Dynasty. It was not until the early 20th century that China had childcare centers in the modern sense.

In 1904, the Qing court promulgated rules on nursery schools and family education, making it explicit that nursery schools should be committed to caring for and educating children aged 3 to 7. That was the first time in Chinese history that early childhood education was incorporated into the school system.

In 1922, the Beiyang government ordered the reform of the school system, when nursery schools were changed into kindergartens that admitted kids under 6. Although preschool education gained a position in the school system, social unrest and sluggish economic growth made it nearly impossible to develop formal early childhood education on a large scale.

After 1949, the emergence of double-income families in cities promoted the development of kindergartens. Restricted by low levels of economic and social development, families largely held accountable to childrearing in vast rural areas.

With rapid modernization and urbanization in the 1990s and after, growing numbers of women entered the workplace. Meanwhile, competition in education got increasingly fierce, while the view that kids should attend kindergarten at 3 caught on.

Generally, in earlier times, children in kindergartens or preschools didn’t face heavy study loads and furious competition. They grew up in a relaxing and relatively liberal environment. But things have changed dramatically now.


Diverse childrearing concepts
Childrearing culture includes cognitive, behavioral, emotional and thinking patterns concerning raising children, as well as norms, values and beliefs underlying the patterns. The transformations of contemporary Chinese childrearing culture feature emerging, pioneering and fashionable behaviors and ideas about raising children. Boosted by online media, these behaviors and ideas are changing people’s original behavioral models and value traditions. The clash, conflict and coordination of behaviors and ideas between different generations, regions and groups are becoming normal.

Previously it was the older generation that taught the younger how to raise children, but this model has been replaced by a pre-figurative culture in which the latter guides the former. We can often see that young parents schedule their kids’ activities in an orderly fashion, such as when to drink water, eat fruit, listen to stories, learn English, build blocks and recite Tang poems, while telling the kids’ grandparents to follow the schedule.

In the 4-2-1 family pattern, consisting of four seniors—maternal and paternal grandparents—two parents and one child, young mothers guide the whole family how to raise the child with professional knowledge they acquire on the internet. Grandparents are more of task-performers.

The childrearing model is not only common in urban families, but also not rare in traditional rural communities. There are frequent conflicts, overt or covert, between young parents and grandparents. While grandparents believe in their experience and traditional habits, young parents generally respect scientific childrearing knowledge.

To children of ordinary families, the long-term company of parents has gradually become an extravagance. Hence toys, reading materials and digital gadgets like iPads are common compensatory substitutes. Young parents would be considered conscientious for taking their kids to playgrounds in shopping malls after a hectic day’s work. More trickily, they have to choose between various childrearing ideas and behaviors.

Traditional laissez-faire parenting has been regarded outdated. A carefree, happy childhood and full preparations for future ferocious social competition have formed an irreconcilable contradiction. Young parents are forced to make hard choices and careful plans between the current life and future development of their kids. “Present is future” represents a new conception of time and childrearing.

Another highlight of contemporary Chinese childrearing culture is that Confucian classics like the Three-Character Classic and Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child have been reintegrated by families and educational institutions into early childhood education. This is a manifestation of China’s efforts to promote cultural confidence and great rejuvenation in the field of childhood education. Nonetheless, society has yet to reach a consensus on the core issue of “what to teach and how.”

Young parents often find that their kids can recite the standards for being good pupils and children fluently, but in reality, the children are willful and self-centered. Their expectations for an ideal personality in their children take shape under the influence of new ethical notions like equality, democracy and respect for personality that are gaining ground in society, all the while being fettered by traditional Chinese culture and existing family structure.


Marketization, commercialization
In the meantime, marketization and commercialization are exerting extremely obvious and profound impacts on childrearing in China. Technologies, information, toys, APP platforms and other cultural products related to childrearing are influencing the everyday family life of tens of millions of people, but they are after all created by a handful of business elites.

It should be warned that market- and business-based childrearing models are mostly profit-seeking and controlled by elites with business capital, strong organizational networks and institutional structures. While taking advantage of and promoting the latest learning theories, they are pressuring young parents to follow what they say. This is particularly evident in early childhood education and English learning.

Worrying that their children would lose at the starting line, young parents are trapped in various educational discourses while busying themselves with caring for the kids. In contemporary Chinese childrearing culture, parents devote tremendous amounts of time, energy and emotions, alongside immense financial expenses. For such, a great number of ordinary families shoulder a heavy, even unbearable load. This is partly why many young parents are unwilling to have a second child even though the Chinese government has relaxed the family-planning policy.

All in all, during the transformation, the originally clear childrearing structure has become fragmented, and the market is playing a significant role. In contemporary China, where social division of labor is highly differentiated and specialized, the nation and government should, when providing inclusive kindergarten education for all, take a greater responsibility to guide, regularize and monitor early childrearing and explore feasible supporting policies for childrearing by families. The Chinese “Early Head Start” program should be put on the agenda as soon as possible to integrate social resources of all parties, build a scientific, reasonable framework and mechanism, and satisfy the needs of diverse families and children development.


Chen Xuejin is from the Institute of Sociology at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)