When we speak of China's generation of only children, the snarky impulse -- yes, we seem to run a surplus of those at Marketplace -- is to paint them spoiled rotten. The Me Generation.
But as marketing exec Tom Doctoroff puts it, these singletons are more than "just coddled dumplings." They alone -- no brothers or sisters, often no cousins -- bear the hopes and aspirations of their parents, as well as those of their parents' parents. The grownups' frequent impulse is to over-schedule a child, enroll him or her in tutoring classes and extracurricular activities to super-size junior's resume.
A few weeks ago at the gym, an American friend mentioned student enrollees start as young as 18 months old at the English-language school where she works.
Naturally, a number of Chinese parents have had enough of all this. Or at the very least, they're conflicted about the system. They engage, yet want to disengage.
John Lu: "We do not want to lag behind"
40-something John Lu is a successful journalist-turned-businessman. I like talking to John, he's stocked with anecdotes and opinions. But when it comes to raising his 9-year-old son, John professes to be "lost in the choices" available to Shanghai's white-collar set:
"[Our generation will] send them to preschool programs to learn English at the age of two. And then we spend tens of thousands of yuan [thousands of dollars] a year on extra programs to coach them how to speak in public while only 4 or 5. And then we have the "luxury" of kindergartens which charge more than $1,000 a month just to keep them under the same roof with kids from around the world, in hopes they can be global citizens by the time they grow up."
And we haven't even gotten to age six.
Everybody's moving forward in China, he says. "We do not want to lag behind." As he puts it, schoolteachers "brainwash" parents to push their kids.
He and his wife emphasize heavily their son's homework and extra activities, and they work personal connections in the school system, in hopes of getting their son get into a good Chinese high school and university. Or, better yet, "a chance to study in Harvard."
For all the ambition, though, John says he knew when he went overboard:
"That question keeps haunting me"
"The most unforgettable, unforgivable mistakes are the many occasions we forced our child into [the parents'] choices. My son is not necessarily interested in rollerblading. But we believed it might get him more interested in outdoor activities and keep him more fit ... I spent 150 dollars to buy a pair for him. He barely used it."
The mistake? It's not the wasting of the money, he says. It's the you-will-do-this impulse. Why does he do it? "That question keeps haunting me."
John speaks of opting out of the kid rat-race, kind of. He bemoans the teach-to-the-test education system. A few years back, he pulled his son from an ultra-competitive grade school.
"I joked once with my son: 'you see, everybody around is trying to become a superstar. But in an age that superstars are teeming all around, probably there will be a scarcity in cheerleaders. So maybe we can differentiate ourselves and be cheerleaders.' It's a joke, but it speaks to our choices. We want him to be optimistic. To be healthy. To be interested in things that interest him."
Hopefully those "things" include biking, swimming and jogging. John Lu still forces those activities on his son. Inconsistent, you might say. But who among us has truly parented in a straight line? In my household, we're on our third try, John Lu and his generation of first-time parents get no do-overs.
Shirley Wang: "We don't think fun is that important"
Thirty-something Shanghai mom Shirley Wang also plans to hit the escape button, for her grade-school aged son. She plans to send him to the States for junior high and high school.
Shirley has multiple issues the Chinese system of outsourced parenting, i.e. mom and dad tend not to teach junior how to play catch, they send the only child to a professional teacher to learn English, piano, swimming, etc. The environment caters to parents who want their one child to get ahead. But Shirley says it allows no space for fun. It's all about developing survival skills in a Darwinian society. Think Galapagos Islands, not Fantasy Island.
Her other problem: Chinese education has become a soulless industry of teach to the test, rinse and repeat.
"All the schools are like that. To get good results in the exams they give you a lot of exercises. You keep doing it, repeating it, you are sure to be able to do it quickly during the exam correctly. Instead of spending more time teaching the students what kind of person they should be, what kind of books they should read."
The mom of this U.S.-bound student praises her son's American tutor. The tutor encourages her child, she says, to experiment, take risks.
On the question of risk-taking, as a father of three relative Evel Knievels in Shanghai, I see every day Chinese families raising children in what Americans would consider protective bubble wrap: grownups carry kids' backpacks, they bark at children to slow down and not run, they tie their 9 year-olds' shoes for them. And yes, I'm sure they think we're weird, too.
In this era of increasing prosperity in China, Shirley and her husband have piled up the savings to send her boy to America. There, she says, he can explore luxuries many in her generation couldn't: independent thinking and expression, enjoying life and work, being a team player.
Sounds squishy. What does that really mean? Here's what Shirley thinks it doesn't. She doesn't want her son to grow up and be like the young workers in her Shanghai office. Here's her rant against the much-maligned "post-80s, post 90s" children:
"They don't like to do very basic things in the office. They think they have good education and therefore shouldn't do basic calculating, make phone calls, close the doors. They want to do things that are more important to them. They don't want to start from the very beginning. When we first joined a company we were quite scared of the boss, and were quite submissive. But they are not. Sometimes when the boss wants them to do something urgent, [they say] 'well I have some urgent stuff here myself, you wait.' For us, we never let the boss wait! It comes naturally to them."
One brief interlude for skeptics: several observers tell me the opt-out parents' real story is their children can't hack it in China. I.e. my-kid-deserves-better is code for my-kid-is-struggling. Let the debate continue...