January 25, 2011

Gingerly, Chinese Parents Embrace the Value of Fun


BEIJING — They haven’t heard of Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mother,” in Qiu County, home to about 200,000 people in the northern province of Hebei. But local educators have ambitious plans for their elementary school students.

Here’s what they want them to do: climb a tree, build a sand castle, collect tadpoles, finger paint and make kites, among other activities.

The aim? To make kids more active, happier and “improve their overall quality,” Wang Ruipeng, an educator at the No. 1 Experimental Elementary School, told Xinhua, the state-run news agency.

The monthlong Chinese New Year holiday has begun, and Mr. Wang couldn’t be reached for comment, but an official in the county education bureau confirmed the new 32-point “play plan.”

Ms. Chua, of course, is the U.S.-born daughter of Filipino-Chinese immigrants whose parenting techniques, described in her book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” startled parents around the world with stories of denied toilet breaks, 2,000 math problems a night and threats to throw out a dollhouse to get her daughters to do what she wanted — be at the top of their class, play the piano and violin perfectly and spurn the school play.

Yet fewer and fewer parents in China share Ms. Chua’s breezy confidence in her purportedly “Chinese” methods.

Instead, many are gripped by something quite different — acute concern that their children’s life choices are being lowered by a glaring creativity deficit in the traditional education system. And, increasingly, they fear for their children’s psychological well-being in a narrowly defined intellectual atmosphere, where rote memorization is considered learning and getting less than 95 percent on a test is to “fail.”

Education is a national obsession in China, the product of a Confucian system that values study far above play and sees no connection between the two. Long hours poring over textbooks will probably remain a feature of children’s lives for many years to come.

Yet China is changing fast.

On the last day of school before breaking for the New Year holiday, my son came home from his state elementary school with a new magazine his teachers had given him.

The magazine, called Growing, is distributed free at 30 elite elementary and middle schools in Beijing. Both the magazine and its Web site are backed by the municipal education commission and produced by a state-owned education company, so they can be taken to represent mainstream, government-approved opinion.

Yet there were some surprises.

The brightly illustrated cover showed a grinning second grader, Jiang Shaohao, of the Affiliated Elementary School of Peking University, clutching giant Lego pieces.

Intriguingly, it advocated a New Year holiday filled with play. In China, especially in the north, where winter is deepening its grip and temperatures have been below freezing for weeks, the holiday is traditionally a time when kids hole up indoors — and study.

Inside, an editorial expanded on the theme.

“It’s a holiday, let the children play to their heart’s content!” it said. “Ten years ago, mention the word ‘play,’ and nearly every parent would respond: ‘Got to watch that.’ But in recent years more and more parents are worrying: ‘My child isn’t playing!”’

Pointing to new state education guidelines issued last year that define priorities for 2010 to 2020, the editorial said: “In the future, ways to lighten the burden on children will be institutionalized, giving them more time to play.”

Fu Ming, the chief editor of Growing, is the mother of two sons, aged 13 and 5. Like the Qiu County education authorities, Ms. Fu had not heard of Ms. Chua.

When shown an extract from the book, she read briefly, then laid it aside. The thesis was too familiar to be interesting, she said.

“We were raised this way. We know all about it,” she said. “But actually it’s really complicated. Her education methods may have worked for her children. But would they work in my family, with my two sons? Not necessarily. Every child is so different. There isn’t one method that works for everyone, one method to suit all kids and all families.”

Wen Liangui, who wrote the editorial, said in an interview: “These days, there are so many choices and different ways of doing things. There is no standard way anymore.”

Ms. Fu’s elder son attends the No. 4 Middle School in Beijing. In his spare time, he likes to play the guitar and chess, and he resists extra academic classes.

Ms. Fu confesses to uncertainty about how to balance her son’s true interests with what she thinks he needs, an emotion familiar to many Western parents.

“I’m just not sure what’s right. I don’t make him do many extra classes. He really likes playing guitar and chess, so often I just let him do that. Actually, I’m pretty confused!”

Several factors lie behind the shifting attitudes: China’s increased exposure to the West; concerns about how children will manage in a creative, knowledge-based economy; and studies indicating increasing mental health problems among children.

More than 30 million people younger than 18, or about 1 in 10, are suffering from depression and behavioral problems, according to the China Population Communication Center. Anxiety disorders among college students increased 8 percent between 1992 and 2005, and depression rose by 7 percent, Zhang Hanxiang, chairman of the center, said at a nationwide youth mental health meeting in December. Drug-taking, violence, Internet addiction and suicide are all on the rise.

Eighty-four percent of high school students reported feeling depressed and under stress. Nearly 50 percent of elementary school students said they felt anger and shame after being criticized by parents or teachers, the study found.

Compounding this, over one in three children are an only child, raising expectations sharply in a country where parents regard children as a key source of old-age security. In a survey at an elementary school in the city of Xian, conducted by Xian Evening News, 85 percent of 300 students said academic pressure was excessive. Still, 87 percent said they were happier at school than at home, where they said they felt lonely, unable to communicate with parents who cared about their studies but not their feelings or physical welfare.

For now, few Chinese parents are willing to completely abandon traditional methods, afraid their children will be left behind in a highly competitive environment. Yet the hunt for alternatives, especially among the well-off, urban elite, is under way, and state schools are adapting, if slowly. Ms. Fu’s younger son attends preschool at the Canadian International School. She can’t decide whether to send him to a state-run elementary school or keep him where he is.

“We know about China’s educational problems,” she said. “I’m interested in trying another method.”