Thursday, May 3, 2012

Children in China

Recently I was asked about my observations on mothering in China. To that I have to respond – what observations? Honestly, one of the things that has struck me is really how few children we see here in Shanghai; as a result, I can't say much about mothering in China, parenting in China or even just being a kid in China. When we’re out and about, the children are few and far between. Furthermore, the kids we do see tend to be very young (say preschool age and younger) or older, high school kids (although these are pretty rare too). In thinking about it, I’ve come up with three potential explanations.

1) The obvious one is the one-child policy here in China. First implemented in 1979, we’re starting to get around to the point where the first generation born under this policy is reproducing. While it was intended to only be a one-generation policy, the Chinese government has indicated that the policy will remain in effect until at least 2015. If you think about it then, it’s like a giant funnel, with each child supporting two parents and four grandparents (the four-two-one problem). Since implementation, it is estimated this policy has prevented approximately 350-400 million births – that’s the entire population of the United States! While the Chinese government claims that just 35.9% of China’s population is covered by this policy (there are exceptions for the SARs and ethnic minorities among others), it seems to be that almost every person I’ve talked to that has one child wants another. These people I’ve spoken to are well educated, and many are actively considering trying to move to the U.S. or other countries so they can have that second child.

Really, I could go on and on talking about this policy, but suffice it to say, it severely depresses the number of children in China. But, as I talk to people around here, I also think there are other factors at play, which leads me to my second and third potential explanations.

2) The National Higher Education Exam, a.k.a. the gaokao, is also partly to blame, I think. This test is a requirement for entrance to university in China. Scores on this exam (and pretty much scores alone) determine if and where you will go to college and what your major will be. There are more students who want to get into university than there are seats, so the pressures surrounding the gaokao are enormous. The exam takes 2-3 days and covers not only Chinese and Math, but also a foreign language (usually English), three sciences (Physics, Chemistry, and Biology), and three humanities (History, Geography and Political Education) - although I understand students typically either take the three sciences or the three humanities. Given the high stakes, pressure starts early and I mean REALLY early, like primary school days. Once you hit primary school, you’re expected to be hitting the books. In fact, most students take school after school, in the afternoon and on the weekends. So, if you’re studying that hard, you don’t really have time to play or even just be outside (although once you've taken the test, you're home free which is why I think we've seen some groups of high school kids around). Pretty sad, but with the fate of many people (see above) resting on your shoulders, the pressure on these kids to perform is enormous.

3) Finally, it is increasingly common these days for villagers to leave their children behind, typically in the care of their grandparents, when they come to the city to look for work. This is partly due to the fact that these parents can’t afford to care for their child given the work they will secure in the city and the cost of living. But it’s also due to the fact that in China, services are tied to residency permits (the hokou system) – no permit, no services (including education and health care). And it’s VERY difficult to change your household registration from your home village to somewhere else. According to one estimate, approximately 58 million (yes – that’s MILLION) children have been left behind by at least one parent searching for work. More than half of those children were left by both parents – that’s 29 million children! In fact, one of the women who works at the university here is in this situation. And let me tell you – it’s really strange talking to her about it. While I assumed she would be devastated, it just seems normal to her. When I mentioned that at least she would get to raise her child’s child, she said that she didn’t want to do that. It was as if she was completely disconnected from the job of parenting.

I’m sure there are other causes. For instance, one of the faculty members here said she wouldn’t let her one child play outside because it was too dangerous. I suppose when you only have one child, you’re going to be really concerned about the safety of that child. Regardless, when we’re out, we rarely see Chinese kids that are the same age as the boys when we go out – they’re either not born, back in the village, or inside studying. As a social scientist and a parent, I find the subject fascinating – it’s a vast policy experiment, the effects of which (both positive and negative) will be felt for years to come.

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