<<This post is also published in the On Education blog>>
I am currently in Beijing and just had an interesting conversation with a local family regarding the education system and parenting practices in China.
The family I spoke to has one daughter who is currently 3 years and 8 months old. They told me that as parents in China, they are pulled in two different directions regarding what is best for the education of their child. In one direction, they are pressured by the test- oriented society to place their child in cram schools, or "buxiban." These cram schools, or intense after-school programs where students study one subject intensely for at least three hours, give students the opportunity to get ahead in society by learning the material (arithmetic, algebra, biology, English, etc.) earlier. Unfortunately, so much time spent studying hardly gives the child time to explore, create, and play on their own accord--skills crucial, I argue, in developing their motor control and social skills. Playing and being able to have good hand-eye coordination is not only important in learning how to throw a ball, but also in being able to hold a pencil comfortably to write, using scissors to cut, coloring pencils and markers to draw, etc. Being able to use and manipulate these tools require control of the mechanics of your body that are developed in child's play where they are uninhibited and free to explore their abilities and push their limitations. Eliminating play from a youngster's childhood not only severely limits their potential to grow and understand their body, but it also stunts their growth as social beings who need to learn how to negotiate, play fair, and peacefully resolve conflicts. Additionally, isolated in a room to study hour after hour, day after day, is not conducive to a happy childhood.
The family I spoke to was well aware of these issues. On the one hand, they wanted to preserve the happiness of their child and allow her to naturally develop an understanding of her abilities. However, in an ever mounting competition amongst Chinese families to let their child be number one and improve the family's social standing, it is hard for a family to go against the norm and not give their child the opportunity to "get ahead" by going to the cram schools. The pressure to succeed is so great that parents are willing to sacrifice the happiness of their child just so they can get into a top elementary school.
The top elementary schools in China are feeder schools into top middle and high schools. It is quite sad that a student who has a lower entrance exam score at eleven years old cannot go to a good school down the road. Their life trajectory is mapped out just by how well they score on their exams. Furthermore, without money you cannot have access to the cram schools, which cost a tremendous amount and without "guanxi" or connections, it is very hard to get ahead politically and socially. To climb the social ladder is to step upon the shoulder's of another.The pool, then, to obtaining a good education is already sharply downsized.
As parents who have their daughter's happiness in mind, they tried to give her time to do what she wishes, to explore her own interests to maintain an inner drive and motivation. But in the end, they had to succumb to the pressures of society and family to give their child opportunities to succeed.
The family said that China is facing a shortage of school facilities to house their already bulging population. Attempts to control the population like with the One-Child Policy have only caused more of these families to spoil the one child. As the only child in the family, they also face overwhelming pressure to do well. Such pressure undoubtedly is not good on the psychology of the child.
So, as a working parent, what do you do? You know the benefits of a happy childhood, but the entire society is participating in a race to get ahead . Do you pay additional fees to give your child the rote memorization and practices he/she needs to quickly learn the material before others? Or, do you let them play, daydream, imagine, create, and come to their own independent thinking free of at least some pressure from you and wider society?
What would you choose?