Should Shanghai grandparents be left holding the baby?
Although everyone seems to be talking about how “Tiger mothers” raise their kids, the much overlooked trend in Shanghai takes many parents out of the equation altogether, handing over responsibility to the grandparents.
Grandparents are one of the main forms of childcare in Shanghai, and their child-rearing methods are facing mounting criticism, from both society and even some young local parents themselves.
During the Shanghai 2010 Expo, the city government began to watch the way its future generation was being educated, starting an investigation into grandparental care in one of Shanghai’s old districts, Changning District.
The reason for looking into how grandparents -- instead of parents -- are raising children is that the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission found that around 90 percent of kids under three years old are being looked after by a grandparent.
When the results of the investigation were released, Shanghai residents began to question whether or not being raised almost entirely by grandparents had an effect on children’s early education.
You can’t say all parents from single-child families are putting off their responsibilities, but many of them are more self-centered than the older generation before them.— Le Shanyao, senior citizen educator
The report found out that only 31.5 percent of grandparents in Changning believe that their grandchildren need early education. The rest of those surveyed, almost 70 percent, choose “eating” and “sleeping” over education as the most important things for a child's development.
7.1 percent of the “eating and sleeping” group said that kids’ good behaviors will form naturally during their growth, and they didn’t need anyone to intervene.
Other surveys in the past two years from a variety of Shanghai children’s education centers indicated that young parents’ satisfaction rates on the way their parents were raising their kids are less than 40 percent. Yet, they still leave their children in the care of the grandparents care.
More criticisms, but less change
“Take my daughter’s falling down as an example," says Liu Zhiyuan, a 28-year-old father with a three-years-old daughter. "My in-laws treat it as a super big issue, and they will run to help her immediately, which makes my daughter cry harder for such help in the future. If I’m with her, I often tell her she can rely on her own strength to stand up.”
Liu lives with his in-laws, who help him and his wife look after their daughter. He says he is desperate to communicate with his in-laws on their child’s education, but cannot.
Similar problems can be seen everywhere on Chinese online child-rearing forums, where young parents post questions on how to communicate with the kids’ grandparents when conflicts over children's education occur.
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Many post comments, some the length of essay, on their problems, although there are few solutions to be offered.
Le Shanyao, a retired family research professor with Shanghai Academy of Educational Science, says the conflict is due to the wrong role grandparents are playing in today's Chinese family.
“Chinese grandparents are always controlling their children, even when their children become parents,” Le says. "They need to give up power, they are no longer the parent."
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Le, who also takes care of his grandson to help his daughter, suggested grandparents step back and let the kids’ parents make decisions. he adds that they should not criticize parents' choices in front of their kids.
Zhao Yuanhong, a child education counselor who has connections with hundreds of three-generation families, says the conflicts have more in-depth reasons, and that China’s Cultural Revolution plays an important role.
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“Most current grandparents -- the generation before China’s Cultural Revolution, saw their education interrupted by the movement, but today's young parents -- the generation after -- are generally well-educated and are more or less influenced by Western early education theories,” says Zhao. Here lies the conflict.
However, changing the situation is not easy, especially with three generations in one home.
One such effort to re-educate Shanghai’s elderly educators, was made by a government-run senior citizen school in Shanghai in 2008, when a grandparent training class on kids’ education was launched.
31.5 percent of grandparents in Changning believe that their grandchildren need early education. The rest of those surveyed, almost 70 percent, choose “eating” and “sleeping” over education.
Only a few grandparents joined the class, and in the end, due to poor enrollment, it failed.
“Most grandparents still rely on their own experience on raising kids, and aren't willing to spend time updating their knowledge,” says Le Shanyao, the trainer for the failed class.
When single child has single child
Most criticism of the current system from social scientists though is toward China's “four-two-one” families. Families with four grandparents, two parents and just one kid.
According to Zhao Yuanhong, China’s One-Child Policy makes it easy for grandparents to step in to support their kids by looking after their grandchildren.
“Our family planning policy has shrunken the scale of Chinese families, meaning most of China’s current grandparents have only one family to support. In addition, China’s older generation are generally in good health and relatively young so they want to be involved,” Zhao says.
In “four-two-one” families, young couples are accused of being part of the spoiled, post-1980s generation, leaving everything to be done by their parents, including child care.
With all the attention being paid to some small children, the term “Little Emperor” has become more and more common when speaking about children in China’s most recent generation.
“You can’t say all parents from single-child families are putting off their responsibilities, but many of them are more self-centered than the older generation before them. They want more time to play computer games or go to KTVs with friends, and thus leaving their kids to the kids’ grandparents,” says Le Jiashan.
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However, 28-years-old Zhao Meiting, who is from a single-child family, disagrees, saying that being self-centered isn’t at the heart of the problem.
“I just feel I’m incapable to look after my daughter. Once when I carried her, she fell out of my arms four times. My mom is just much better than me for this job,” says Zhao.
Zhao doesn’t feel guilty about handing her responsibilities as a parent to her parents. She claims that she feels good that her daughter is establishing a close relationship with more relatives.
Any chance for a change?
Young parents trying to avoid some of the massive responsibilities of raising a child could happen anywhere, but turning to elderly parents in such large numbers is something particular to China, and within China, Shanghai.
One reason, according to some young parents, is environment and cost.
Liu Zhiyuan spent his childhood in a low-cost state-owned day care center, but now he feels hard pressed to find one for his daughter.
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“China’s marketization makes everything commercial, and now if you want good service, you have to pay more,” Liu says, and few can afford to.
According to him, daily expenses, apartment loans plus the cost of saving to send his daughter to a private kindergarten, leaves no money to hire a good nanny care for his daughter. So he leaves it to his parents.
Chinese grandparents are always controlling their children, even when their children become parents. They need to give up power, they are no longer the parent.— Le Shanyao, retired family research professor with Shanghai Academy of Educational Science
People prefer grandparents to hiring a nanny too, citing safety concerns.
In recent years, some young Shanghai mothers have posted online about their nannies’ bad behavior toward their kids, citing, for example, instances where nannies have added sleeping pill powder into milk to make babies sleep more.
The final reason for more grandparents taking over children’s care, according to Yu Hai, a social professor with Fudan University, is the changing of women’s economic status.
“Women share a half, or even more than a half, of earnings in a family in modern Shanghai. Men are not the only bread makers,” says Yu.
Thanks to Mao, who supported women’s independence and quipped the now famous quote that “Chinese women hold up half the sky,” China has around 320 million working mothers, more than the entire population of the United States, according to a recent survey by Ogilvy.
The social change has created an army of women full of ambition -- and less time to care for their children.
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The free childcare service offered by grandparents, although facing many criticisms, does help Chinese women pursue their careers -- although at the risk of sacrificing their children’s education.
Those that choose to become the primary care giver for their young children must stay home instead of their own career ambitions. Shanghai today lacks the support system to allow most women to do both.
“Many young moms born after 1980s prefer to work from home or even be a housewife so they can take care of their child's education, so only few of them realized their career dreams,” Zhao Yuanhong says.
Although it is easy to blame grandparents as the Shanghai government survey does, it is the broader issues young Shanghai families face that are in fact forcing local parents to make difficult choices.