Crouching tigers

Why Chinese parents are stressed about schooling


The old (and rather sexist) saying claims that behind every successful man is a woman. But in China, behind every successful child is an even harder working parent.

For instance, for those who want to secure their offspring a coveted spot in one of the top six high schools in Beijing, their child has to achieve the following milestones: by age one, parents need to start bilingual teaching in both Chinese and English; in their third year, children are expected to read picture books on their own and memorise a hundred Chinese poems; by age four, they need to be able to paint and start learning music theory and piano so that when they turn nine, they can pass level 10 in piano. Before they turn 10, children are expected to do well in the Olympiad math programme and be proficient in English.

Such intensity leaves most other countries in the dust. One of the most widely circulated posts on a parenting discussion group goes like this: “Question: my child is four and knows about 1,500 English words. Is that enough? Answer: it should be sufficient if you are in the US, but it’s definitely not enough in China.”

It should come as little surprise that many Chinese parents suffer from extreme anxiety about their child’s educational progress. Many admit that they lose sleep during exam seasons. Homework is a daily struggle, straining tempers (and sometimes leading to physical abuse). Even during the summer holiday, parents are busy planning their kids’ summer programmes so there’s no time to idle (if you ease off, other more competitive parents will consider you a sucker).

While obsessive parenting is nothing new and is hardly unique to China, parents in the world’s most populous – and by extension most educationally competitive – country have their own distinct characteristics. Take the so-called ‘Haidian Huangzhuang moms’, a group of parents that live in the affluent Haidian district in Beijing. Some are working parents but many gave up their careers to be stay-at-home moms. They have high spending power but instead of luxury goods they spend their money on cramming schools.

“Haidian moms don’t compare luxury bags or material things like where you live,” one told Southern Weekend. “The only thing anyone cares about is the child’s grades.”

According to education expert Yang Dongping, part of the reason for the parental anxiety is the struggle for scarce places at top institutions and what that requires financially – summed up locally in the phrase ‘winning at the starting line’. For instance, being able to secure a property in a competitive (and expensive) school district such as Haidian will increase the chance of a pupil being accepted to top-tier universities: Beida and Tsinghua in Beijing admit only 7,800 students out of nine million entrance exam takers every year. That anxiety trickles down to choosing the optimal infant formula and getting into the right preschool to produce the ‘genius’ child.

However, Yang reckons that much of the stress stems from FOMO, or fear of missing out. “Parents are constantly worried that they’ll make the wrong decisions for their child; they are worried that other children know more and are more accomplished than their child; and afraid that they are not competitive enough… A lot of times, they see what other parents are doing and they feel like they need to do the same so they don’t fall behind.”

Social media, too, has only exacerbated these anxieties. “Just a quick look on WeChat you find half of your friends’ children are learning English on weekends and the other half are practicing piano while your child is fooling around all the time and can’t even write his own name. How can you not worry?” one parent lamented.

Even though the Chinese government has resolved to ease some of the crushing academic burden on primary and middle school students by cutting class hours and reducing the number of homework assignments (as well as making tests easier) many parents have been reluctant to embrace the directive.“I am not a big fan of the government’s policies to reduce students’ academic burdens, because there are only a limited number of good universities, which means only those who have studied hard enough can be admitted,” one parent told the China Daily.

This will form a part of a broader occasional series in WiC looking at Chinese education trends and the pressures they exert on society.

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