Child-rearing in China

There are a few basic questions that students or other Chinese people
always want to ask me when they first talk to me. Can I use
chopsticks? How do I find China? I find the former somewhat annoying,
and go with some iteration of, “Yes, I’ve been using them since I was
a child at Asian restaurants.” This generally draws confused stares.
To the latter, I go with, “I like being here and am glad I came. China
is very, very different from the US, though. Every day I am surprised
by the differences.” This also draws confusion.
Another question that I’ve been asked a few times, once we start
getting a little deeper into it, is some iteration of, “What are the
differences between parenting in China and the US?” My basic answer
is, well, when children are younger, I think they are more disciplined
in America than in China.

Of course, most children here are only children. That means that the
focus of two parents and perhaps all four grandparents is solely on
this one child. The danger here is that they may tend to grow up as
“little emperors”—all spoiling and coddling with too little
discipline. I’ve seen little kids running around and yelling and
causing mayhem in all manner of situations, with parents enabling.
Other friends have told stories of host parents saying, of their
9-year-old, “Yes, I wish he would agree to turn the TV off during
mealtimes [or insert other unacceptable behavior here], but he won’t…”
Um, he’s 9. You can make him.

However, in terms of the relationship between parents and children
when they get a little older, the tables turn. Spoiled children tend to grow
into overprotected adolescents, whose lives revolve around only family
and school up through high school. On the other hand, no one works harder at school, for the sake of duty to the family, than these same Chinese students. Chinese schools run all day—there is no freedom in the afternoon when children might be expected to take up extracurricular activities. All Chinese kids and teens do is study, study, study. This means, of course, absorb and regurgitate, not learning how to think independently (a subtopic for another day). This makes sense, though, when their entire futures depend on their results on the college placement test, the dreaded Gao Kao, which determines their university placements and what they can study. However, it means that parents continue to play the dominant, sheltering role in their children’s lives later, with children less free to explore their own outside interests or develop social lives.

This changes when they reach university. For the first time they’re on
their own, at least a little more. They live in dorm rooms with 3 or 5
or even 7 members of their same class—meaning, built-in friends who
take every single class together, since their entire curriculum is
set. And although they still must study all the time, they now have
some modicum of free time to join clubs and pursue other activities,
and even socialize. What this means, though, is that the average
college sophomore, ie the age of students I teach, seems more like an
American 14 or 15-year-old than a 19-year-old. They have their first
boyfriends and girlfriends at this age, but probably 90%+ are not sexually active,
I’d guess. When my students describe their relationships, the few who
are in relationships, I am reminded of hearing a middle-schooler talk
about a first love.

And the structure of their lives reminds me of summer camp—sleeping in
bunkbeds with a handful of girls, with no boys allowed in the dorm
building. Lights automatically turned off at 11. Going to all classes
and activities with the same group of friends. Sneaking off to the
athletic field to make out (yes, there is one field that is where all
the couples go to do this nightly. I sketchily want to go for a walk
there one night and see exactly what it is they do….)

This is the nature of their first taste of freedom, and it’s then no
wonder that for the rest of their lives, Chinese people seem to tend
towards structured social activities, and structured schedules in
which they’re always surrounded by other people. Any party you attend,
be it a birthday or a dance or whatever, goes heavy on the
carefully-practiced performances, meaning less time to have to
socialize on one’s own. The concept of going to a dance or a party or
a bar and just meeting people and talking aimlessly holds little
appeal here. Leisure time is best spent in the company of many
others—playing mahjong for hours with friends, spending all day on the
weekend with your whole extended family, etc. Being alone holds
little-to-no appeal.

Of course, this is all just my observation over a relatively brief
time here. And hey, it works for them—in a country with this many
people, why not just make a group of friends and stick to them like
glue, and alone time could be hard to find even if you wanted it. If
you’re only going to need to have one child later in life, well into
marriage, then why not discourage dating or socializing until
college-age or later (although, the sexual repression is a topic for a
whole other post). And that’s the bottom line. I guess it works for
them. I think my students find my own independence and forwardness,
relative to my age, rather shocking.

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3 thoughts on “Child-rearing in China

  1. I like your analysis. I have been a little mystified by the whole college social situation and unfortunately don’t live on campus with my students so I have less time to observe and conjecture. I sent them into a titter when a student asked me how old I was when I had my first boyfriend. The answer of 13 was met with genuine shock, so I decided to follow it up with a short lecture about typical middle/high school dating norms in America. They were still shocked.

  2. Hi. You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of Becky Duffett’s. She told me about your blog because I’m teaching English in Zhaotong about 7 or 8 hours mostly south of Chongqing.

    I just wanted to chime in here that I also think this is a great analysis. It mirrors my experience here and helps explain the odd atmosphere of the Mid-Autumn Festival parties that I was invited to. I wonder how long the regimented life will continue?

    Love your blog. Keep it up.

  3. Found your blog last night and have loved gobbling it up so far. I’m a future PCV headed to China this summer. Nice to see your thoughtful analysis of the child-rearing environment there…I wonder particularly how the one child policy has influenced the popular styles of parenting. Hope you’re enjoying RPCV life!

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