I divide my 15 years in Chengdu into BC (before children) and AC (after children). BC I was an anthropologist enthusiastically embracing cultural relativity and the importance of understanding the local context of behavior and ideology. AC I am an often angry and frustrated parent desperately trying to assert my own parenting ground rules in the face of Chinese family and complete strangers' interference. So much for cultural relativity!
Based on having been a parent in a Chinese family for seven years now, and, more recently, the manager of the Chengdu based children's center the Music Box, here is my list of ideas to survive, understand, and embrace as much as possible the Chinese parenting way.
• Looking after your kids in Chengdu is in some ways much easier and less stressful than in other parts of the world. There's the cheapness and availability of home help to save you hours of domestic drudgery, or babysitting to give you a life away on your own. But more importantly, the freedom you have outside the home with your children because Chinese people generally love children. They don't sneer and disapprove when your child misbehaves on the street or hits a complete stranger. They laugh and say "mei guanxi" and really mean it. They don't look at you in a restaurant as if you shouldn't bring noisy disruptive children with you, but smile encouragingly and engage your children in conversation and play. Bliss.
• The downside to the overwhelming Chinese love and tolerance for small children is the lack of privacy and boundaries when you are out and about with your children. Countless times I have had to fend off over-enthusiastic adults who wanted to smother my children with caresses and hugs and overload them with sweets. Finding a balance between accepting that most Chinese people think nothing of petting children who are complete strangers, especially exotic foreign children, and maintaining some boundaries to stop your child being overwhelmed and possibly frightened by such attention, is a difficult one.
• In my experience, many Chinese parents are confused and worried about the best way to raise their children. The number of parenting books, both domestic and translated, is phenomenal, but it leaves many Chinese parents unsure of their own abilities as parents. Coupled with the feeling that since they only have one child and must ensure the best start in life if he or she is to compete in the new market economy, a lot of Chinese parents start hot-housing their children before they can walk or even crawl, enrolling them in early education programs or employing a private tutor. What this means in practice is that many Chinese children don't get to really play. So it can be hard to find like-minded Chinese parents who are happy to hang out in a park and watch your children get dirty and wet mucking about on the ground.
• I have found that there is a fundamental shift in parenting style when a child reaches around five years old. Before then Chinese children are considered to 'bu dongshi' (unable to reason) and there is sometimes incredible latitude and tolerance for bad behaviour, including tantrums and violence, on the grounds that they don't know what they are doing. And suddenly, sometime around five, they are 'dongshi', reasoning children, and strict rules and discipline is enforced to make sure the child learns well, works hard, and does what he or she is told.
• Many Chinese parents I meet at the Music Box profess an admiration and envy for the carefree way they perceive Western parents as bringing up their children and believe it is the key to Western children's independence and sturdiness. But they find it very hard to stop being over-protective of their child. This is not just because they have only the one precious child, but that Chinese parents feel they have little control over the external environment around them. Whilst a Western home would be replete with playpens, socket guards, window locks and stair-gates, and valuable items put away out of reach so that children can play freely in the house, many Chinese homes lack all these things and so the nanny or the grandparents follow the child everywhere they go. This is replicated outside the house.
• There is a big generational gap in ideas on bringing up children in Chinese families. Many young parents would love to adopt new ideas but are in conflict with their parents' more traditional notions of how to raise children. Since so many young parents are dependent on grandparents for childcare, and since it is culturally very difficult to openly defy your elders, changing the parenting status quo in China is a long, slow process. But signs of change are everywhere. The success of the Waldorf Steiner school in Chengdu, the growth of Montessori kindergartens, and the interest in international early education show that more and more Chinese parents are willing to challenge orthodox ways of parenting.
Louise runs the Music Box, a center where children aged 3 months to 3 years develop musicality, language skills, artistic sense, and physical ability through explorative and creative play.
This article by Louise Beynon was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 46. Louise runs the Music Box, a center where children aged 3 months to 3 years develop musicality, language skills, artistic sense, and physical ability through explorative and creative play.