Forcibly immersing babies into a swimming pool—some would call it child abuse. But Wang Tiemin, a 65-year-old retiree from Hebei province, calls it a method of early-childhood education that he spent years creating.
Wang, a former military musical troupe conductor and Beijing pharmaceutical employee, lives with his wife in a remote village in Suining's Pengxi County, halfway between Chengdu and Chongqing.
"I came here to visit my cousin and continue experimenting with the early-childhood-education method that I invented," said Wang.
Since his retirement, Wang says he has been painstakingly studying and designing educational schemes to foster babies' development.
Such schemes include the highly controversial "survival swim," which involves immersing babies and young children in order to teach them to swim.
Wang first places a floating mat on the water, and then places the child on the mat. Then he presses the mat below the water's surface, forcing the child to instinctively struggle to float.
"I invented the survival swim for babies endangered in water," said Wang. "If babies are trained effectively under this scheme, they will not drown. Many tragedies can be avoided."
Wang moved to Sichuan in February of this year and rented a house in the mountainous village for RMB800 a year. He set up a small, 0.7-meter-deep swimming pool on the roof and posted a notice for free "self-rescue swimming lessons" for babies online. Three parents responded. "I didn't ask for tuition fees but only got three children, all of whom come from other provinces," said Wang regretfully. "Citizens of Pengxi are not fond of my education method."
All three of his students are from impoverished families and range in age from 13 months to 3 years. Their parents have signed a contract with Wang that states he will raise them—and pay for their living and medical expenses—until they are 6 years old.
"All of them can swim now," Wang said. "With this method, babies can learn to swim in 10 days."
Wang told reporters that his own son, whom he calls "Light Boy" (灯娃), was taught this way. According to Wang, his son, now 16, learned to swim when he was only a year old and, by the age of 4, had crossed the Yangtze River in just one hour. By the time he was 8, "Light Boy" had swum across the Yellow River.
"Light Boy broke the Guinness World Record by somersaulting 500 times in the water within half an hour," said Wang. After this feat, says Wang, Light Boy then won an RMB1 million endorsement contract.
Despite this success, many think Wang's methods are inhumane. "This is unbelievably cruel," said a Pengxi local. "I wouldn't let him to train my child, that's for sure."
Some even accuse Wang of abuse and question his motives. "This is early-childhood education, not abuse," counters Wang. "And I'm not doing it for money. I pay for everything with my pension."
Wang's practices have been featured in the news for the past year, when a Hebei station reported on Wang and showed footage of an 18-month-old girl crying while Wang submerged her in the water for five minutes. The report was widely discussed online and in follow-up reports in the media.
"Constant crying signals the child's dislike of the training," said Sun Shuling, an educator specialized in early childhood. "Forcing them to continue can only psychologically damage the child."
"Children's organs are not fully-developed at this age," said Yang Jing, director of the children's health department at the Qinhuangdao Hospital. "A set of scientifically proven methods, instead of coercion against children's will, should be used to train the babies."
Sun Ruixue, a childhood-education expert and the principal of the Montessori School of Shanghai, added that Wang is "domesticating," not "training" the babies. "This can cultivate a violent nature in the children," added Sun.
An employee of Pengxian County said that the local police station has already verified the identities of both Wang Tiemin and his cousin, and confirmed that they are not running a financial scam. Public controversy is not reason enough to shut down his operations.
In any case, Wang appears unmoved by the outcry. "I'll tell all the readers and audience my true telephone and fax number," he said. "I want to know what people really think about my method."
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