A day in the life of a toddler

Olivia Halsall on the education regimes of two Shanghai four year-olds


In Chinese cities there is an ‘arms race’ among parents to give their child an educational advantage

With a strong black coffee in one hand and an oversized teddy bear in the other, I’m standing in front of 30 Chinese toddlers gazing up at me in wonder. Less than eight weeks ago, I was clutching my first-class degree in French, Chinese and Business in one hand and an oversized bottle of champagne in the other.

My first real experience of China was as an exchange student at Tsinghua University, aged 21, funded by a Confucius Scholarship. Upon my return to the UK, I was accepted onto Oxford University’s MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies. Yet I felt that to understand China’s intricacies I had to be in China itself. And the only way I could work there for an extended period without much full-time work experience was to teach English. I managed to blag my way into various WeChat groups, spoke to dozens of agents, and within two weeks had secured a job as an English teacher in one of Shanghai’s most prestigious public kindergartens.

On the same morning, I turned down my offer from Oxford and booked a one-way ticket to Shanghai.

Shanghai is not representative of the China that I thought I was beginning to understand from my sheltered, university bubble at Tsinghua. The income inequality is blatant – beyond the Bund, the rooftop bars and the Starbucks on every corner are streets of small hole-in-the-wall shops, traditional yet crumbling homes and piles of rusty bicycles.

This inequality manifests itself within preschools too in the most eye-opening way. Toddlers in expensive, international preschools are well-nourished and already have exceptionally good levels of English. But some of the kids attending the public preschools have black, rotting teeth and can barely say “Hello”.

Before children have even started primary education on an official basis, and in many cases irrespective of the family income level, parents are pouring overwhelming amounts of time, energy and money into extracurricular activities and English lessons.

They are creating ‘little tiger’ toddlers who are being raised with their parents’ singular attention. They will grow up to become highly resourceful at getting what they want and entirely backed financially by their parents.

Since relocating to Shanghai, I have got to know two little four year-olds who are somewhat representative of China’s “tiger toddlers”.

Winston’s mother and I became acquainted through a mutual friend, having met at a rather boozy Mid-Autumn Festival Party. A graduate from a university in London, she is from a wealthy Shanghainese family and now runs her own fashion business.

To her, money is no object; she prides herself on Winston’s happiness and being able to give him a comfortable life. What Winston wants, Winston gets.

Freddy’s mother and I work together at the public preschool in Shanghai. Her family have lived locally for three generations in a traditional, two-story shikumen, a “lane house” built from red brick. Freddy’s mum ploughed through the public education system, obtaining undergraduate and masters qualifications in education. To her, ensuring that Freddy’s educational prospects exceed those of her own is key; she prides herself on his headstart in the public education system and being able to support him through this route.

Winston: aged four

“Winston, get here now!” Winston is running full pelt through his apartment compound screaming at the top of his lungs as his mother tries to grab him. He bolts between pristinely kept hedges and water fountains inspired by Greek mythical creatures as she catches him, swings him up into the air and half-heartedly tells him off.

It’s Thursday evening and we are due to have a one-hour, private English class with two other toddlers from Winston’s neighbourhood. The lesson is given in the converted attic of one of their homes – a play room featuring an indoor climbing frame, a slide and a tree house. The bookshelves are stuffed with games, toys and English books. Many of them have been imported directly from the UK and sit unopened in their packaging.

Each week, I plan the lesson according to each mother’s requirements: “Discipline them but ensure that the lesson is fun. Teach them songs and vocabulary an English child would learn.”

Last week I taught every animal under the sun from the rhino to the antelope to the ladybird. This week we are going through the capital cities of the world with a focus on acquiring the standardised, ‘BBC English’ accent requested.

Winston attends an international, bilingual preschool following the Montessori approach of multi-age classrooms and a curriculum that emphasises independence, as well as providing opportunities for parents to interact with their children in the classroom.

It costs Winston’s parents Rmb180,000 a year ($26,000) for him to attend. Assuming Winston communicates solely in English at preschool, from 08:00 to 16:00 every day, and then attends an average of two hours of English class on weekdays, including when his mother speaks to him in her near-perfect English – at least 50 hours are spent on English language learning each week.

Winston’s father is from Hong Kong and works in the jewellery industry. He met Winston’s mother when she was pursuing her undergraduate studies in the sciences at a London university. She never finished her degree and the couple spent the early years of their marriage in Hong Kong, where Winston was born, before moving to Shanghai to be closer to the extended maternal family.

Despite being manager of her own business, Winston’s mother insists on driving him around Shanghai until the late hours of the evening. She wants to know where he is 24/7 yet says she has an “unconventional and non-traditional approach to education” in that she prioritises Winston’s happiness above extracurricular activity that may be “too strenuous and make him tired”.

While studying in the UK, she claims to have adopted British thinking which she now implements in her son’s education. “We want him to be independent, to be smart and to have a likeable personality. A variety of extracurricular activities will raise him to be a man of many talents”

“I want him to grow up in a happy, comfortable environment where he isn’t burdened by the demands of education too young (as I was). If he doesn’t want to do something, I won’t force him to do it.”

She is aware that money will buy Winston an elite education; already his English language abilities exceed the majority of toddlers in public preschools, so what’s the rush?

Piano lessons, painting classes and mathematics tuition are a select few of Winston’s many extracurricular activities. Soon after his fourth birthday, his parents enrolled him into “Scholastic” classes, paying another Rmb14,980 up front for a year of additional 90-minute English lessons every week, but often Winston refuses to go. His parents have also stumped up another Rmb10,380 for an annual membership at Kerry Adventure Zone in Pudong, but he rarely has time to go.

As he was born in Hong Kong, Winston’s parents are eligible to send him to Harrow International School from prep school (year five) until upper school (year 13). In total, this will cost them Rmb2,599,500 as an absolute minimum. On top of this, they will of course send him for additional tutoring and extracurricular activities if he wishes.

Freddy: also aged four

“Freddy, get here now!” Freddy is running full pelt through his own apartment compound screaming at the top of his lungs as his mother tries to grab him. He bolts between rusty, broken bicycles and stinky tofu street food vendors as she swings a smack at him.

Freddy is late for his online English class having spent the day at preschool – one of Shanghai’s most respected public preschools. The all-female staff has at least a Master’s qualification in preschool education and they are all Shanghai residents (except me, the only foreign teacher). The facilities are impressive; there are indoor and outdoor playrooms, a reading room filled with books, dormitories and classrooms with interactive whiteboards.

Yet for many of Freddy’s classmates, even comparatively inexpensive extracurricular sessions and additional English lessons make up a sizeable proportion of their parental income. Freddy sits alongside classmates with black teeth who can’t utter a word of English. When I ask “Hello, how are you?” many of the toddlers stare back at me with blank expressions. “Teacher, I don’t understand” they whisper in Chinese.

The preschool Freddy attends costs Rmb12,000 a year and is at the upper end of public preschools in the area, with the majority costing just over Rmb7,200.

As a preschool teacher herself, Freddy’s mother feels a sense of urgency at maintaining a tight schedule for her only son so that he can at least stand a chance against other (wealthier) tiger toddlers.

At preschool, Freddy only has 30 minutes of English language classes every week. I am told to teach one song, and no more than 10 new words to Freddy’s class per month – otherwise, it is presumed, they will forget what they have learned.

To top this up, Freddy’s mum spends Rmb80 per hour for online English tuition for her son, and he has around three of these sessions a week. During the lessons, she lurks behind his desk, listening attentively during class and taking notes frantically. Companies such as Vipkid offer more expensive online classes to children as young as four during which the teacher sings, tells stories and plays games.

Freddy’s mum has also purchased a few illegally recorded lessons from WeChat groups dedicated to cheap, English material for preschool children. While Taobao stocks an abundance of English books, Freddy’s mum prefers to discuss their quality and suitability with other parents beforehand, usually settling on photocopies of exercises shared around WeChat groups, or second-hand textbooks passed down from friends with older children.

Every evening after preschool, she sits down with Freddy for a couple of hours and they work through the textbooks systematically – page after page after page until he can hardly stay awake.

From Monday through Friday, one can assume Freddy spends a maximum of 10 hours dedicated to English language learning, including when his mother speaks to him in broken English.

That means that over the course of a year Winston accumulates 2,080 hours more English language practice than Freddy simply because his parents have greater financial means.

Shortly after his fourth birthday, Freddy’s parents enrolled him into gymnastics classes. “We only have the means to enrol him into a select few extracurricular activities, and in Shanghai they are becoming more and more expensive.” The class costs Rmb260 an hour and is taught in English. “If he is naturally better than the other children, we will of course invest more money, but only if he has a chance at being one of the best – otherwise what’s the point?”

“More than half of my annual salary (Rmb80,000) goes directly into Freddy’s education beyond his normal preschool hours. I want him to be better than the other children in his class at English – so I have to encourage, support and finance him to achieve this… If this means learning the entire curriculum for year 1 at home before he has started primary school, then so be it.”

There is a strong sense of determination in her voice. Her logic is that if Freddy already knows the content for the upcoming academic year back-to-front, then he will excel ahead of the others. “He can win before the start line.”

Freddy’s parents hope to send him to a local public school. He will take the zhongkao, China’s secondary school entrance examination, at the age of 15, followed by the gaokao, China’s university entrance examination, at the age of 18. If he scores in the top 0.91%, he will then have the chance to attend one of the most prestigious universities such as Peking or Tsinghua. “I know he can achieve this, and I want him to excel through the system. Maybe one day he can become a professor.”

An educational marathon

Last month the 15-page CV of a five year-old circulated on WeChat, featuring a detailed breakdown of the books he had read and the places he had travelled to, as well as his weekly timetable and personality traits (“strong willed” and “able to recover from setbacks” were two of his attributes).

It made international news, even featuring on the BBC. But the parents, both graduates of Shanghai’s elite Fudan University and who work for Bain and Ford, are far from unique in collating such a CV for their toddler. Agencies help parents put them together as part of the entrance assessments for (private) primary schools – yet another response to the sense of hyper competition that characterises the world of education in China.

According to the South China Morning Post, some netizens were so disturbed by the CV that they claimed that it has put them off having children themselves. For some of my younger, highly-educated Chinese friends, the thought of raising a child in a world with this magnitude of competition is unfathomable. Others have reacted more positively, saying that it is “up to the parents to guide their children to do meaningful things”. Yet with the circulation of such CVs, it really is no wonder that the mothers of Freddy and Winston feel the need for their toddlers to “win the race” by getting a headstart on China’s educational marathon. n

Olivia Halsall is a full-time English teacher in Shanghai and a freelance writer. Winston and Freddy are not the boys’ real names.

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