It was a decade ago that Amy Chua released her hugely controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In it she explained why ultra-competitive parenting styles raised stereotypically successful kids, destined for Ivy League schools and great careers. In China, TV dramas about parenting have tapped into a similar sentiment, becoming a hugely successful genre. It probably helps that there are already plenty of make-or-break moments of tension around the gaokao, the crucial college entrance exam. But the genre shows no signs of slowing.
Previous stars in the category include 2016’s A Love for Separation and 2019’s A Little Reunion, both written by Lu Yingong in an effort to explore the social costs of an education-obsessed culture. The latest instalment of Lu’s franchise is Little Dilemma, which has been streaming on iQiyi since mid-April.
It follows two types of parents with young children in elementary school. First, there is Tian Nanli (played by actress Song Jia), who takes a more laissez-faire approach, allowing her daughter Huan Huan to explore her own interests in arts and music. But as grades start to suffer, Nanli succumbs to the pressure and decides that Huan Huan’s core education is now a priority, packing her schedule with tutoring lessons. This leaves the girl with little time for anything else and it doesn’t take long before both realise that the stressful environment is taking a toll on their relationship.
Meanwhile, Nanli’s stepsister Tian Yulan (played by Jiang Xin), is the typical Hadian-Huangzhuang mother (see WiC524 for an earlier mention of this parenting type), often prepared to push her child beyond reasonable limits. As the child of a relationship between a man and his mistress, Tian struggles with her own self-worth and uses her son’s academic excellence to offset her own feelings of inferiority (with some impractical demands such as making him rattle off the first 1,000 digits of the numerical value of Pi in front of her father).
When the boy drops to fourth place in a maths test, Yulan is determined to find out why. It turns out that the maths teacher has been secretly running a cramming school after class for other children. Jiang reports him to the school, prompting him to lose his job.
The show has prompted some soul-searching. “It seems that when it comes to childrens’ education, all the parents are charging ahead and dare not stop for a moment. Even mao ba or ‘buddha mother’ parents [more relaxed in approach] gradually cave in to outside pressure, forcing their children to study and obsessing with ‘winning at the starting line’,” opined NetEase, a news portal. “But we need to ask ourselves: are we really leading our children in the right direction? Or just blindly chasing and racing?”
The message from the series is that obsessive parenting may not always yield the best results. In one episode, Yulan’s fifth-grade son says, “I think my mother doesn’t love me but she loves the boy who got the perfect score on the test.”
In an interview with China Youth Daily, Lu, the writer behind the series, says many children are faced with much harsher realities than those depicted on the show. During his research he was surprised by the intensity of many of the weekend tutoring classes, for instance. Some parents had even set up camping tents outside classrooms so that their kids could eat and rest for short periods between lessons, to maximise time for study.
“This absurdity of life often exceeds our wildest imagination. As a bystander, your heart breaks for these families. Sometimes at home at night time, you hear yelling from mothers within the community about their children’s homework. When you meet them in person you will find that they are very kind to their children and polite to their neighbours. But when it comes to their kids’ educations, parents often cannot control their emotions. It’s really difficult for both parents and children alike,” Lu believes.
He also says that many of the parents keep up the pressure out of fear of failure, rather than any expectation that their children will turn out to be outstandings students. “For a lot of parents, they don’t need their children to surpass others,” he adds. “In fact, most of them are simply worried that their children can’t keep up and about them falling behind. That, to me, feels very pitiful,” he says.
Concern that their children are not competitive enough is often cited as a cause for parental anxiety, exacerbated by China’s exam-oriented culture, where students come under immense pressure to perform. Although there is no shortage of parenting blogs preaching the importance of allowing children more of a say in determining their own destiny, millions of parents seem to have a hard time letting go of the reins.
The government recognises the problem too. In late March, the Beijing municipal authorities mooted banning private classes in some subjects for six year-olds (or under), and barred commercial education providers from advertising in the state media (see WiC534). However, critics say the policies won’t deter parents from overpacking kids’ schedules with more after-school classes. “The reality is that the number of applicants is going up every year while the number of places at the very top high schools and universities is unchanged. Whether their children get in through a high gaokao score or other special criteria, as long as there is competition, every parent is going to make sure that they prepare their children. Nobody is going to let them do whatever they want,” Yi Yuantian, a parenting expert, claimed. ThePaper.cn agreed: “The anxiety of parents cannot be changed by a TV series. In the story, Nanli was determined not to let her daughter go to tutoring. But in the end, she still couldn’t resist going down the same path.”
Still, Lu hopes that some parents watching the show might have a rethink. “Young people yearn for freedom. We mustn’t let their creativity and energy be buried in a sea of exams,” he pleaded.
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