The Ugly Side of Parenting in China

Local boy

I try to be patient, I try not to hate China, I actually really do enjoy my life in Guangzhou, but there is something about Chinese way of child rearing that I just can’t accept. As I’m slowly getting closer and closer to 30’s, having a family of my own isn’t that far away in the future anymore. Being in a multicultural relationship, parenting is one huge topic you need to consider before it’s too late.

Of course there are as many parenting styles in China as there are parents, and child rearing is easy when you don’t have your own kids, but for some reason I have recently witnessed so many dangerous child rearing ways, that I need to get it off my chest.

Just one hour ago I was having dinner with my boyfriend and his friends, one of them showed a video of his small child after drinking alcohol. He was laughing how funny his son looked while drunk! I wanted to yell at him for being so irresponsible, but I was too shy and shocked to say anything. Now I feel like a really bad person for not saying anything. How could someone put their kids in such a danger?

Then there is violence, usually hitting your children. We were talking about this once at class and our teacher, a woman, admitted that she sometimes hit her child when they didn’t obey. That time I spoke my mind and said it wasn’t a funny topic to talk at all, not something to joke about. I don’t accept domestic violence of any sort, but still hitting kids seems to be very common in China

I know parents that don’t hit their kids, but they threaten to hit them on daily basis. “If you don’t listen to me, I will hit you”, “If you don’t eat your food, your dad will hit you”. I think a parent should live up to what they say and threaten by violence isn’t an option. I’m sure parenting isn’t easy, it’s perhaps the hardest work out there, but you still can’t go to violence when you fail to educate your children.

There is also a sad side to parenting in China, when older brothers and sister has to take care of the younger ones when parents are at work. I know a boy about 8 years old who often takes care of his 6 months old little sister. He carries her, makes her laugh and is just being an amazing older brother. But I couldn’t imagine leaving my baby for a kid that young to take care of. In know that I’m lucky to have the option not to do so.

One small girl, about 6 years old, is a part of my boyfriend’s family. She is such a cute little monster! So beautiful, but she can destroy anything she sees. She might break things or even hit people. She scares the cats when she comes to visit and everyone is laughing. For my eyes she just seems a little spoiled, in need of more boundaries.

These are just some example I’ve come across during these past few weeks. If life have been easy in China until now, it surely isn’t going to be easy later on if we have our own family. My boyfriend shares most of my views, but I’m worried how the older generation will treat and take care of our children. I don’t want them to be spoiled either.

  • Parenting is certainly not easy, but giving alcohol to a child is -or should be- wrong everywhere. Not only that: It is also very dangerous. In my opinion, you should have said one thing or two to that irresponsible parent who showed the video. It is normal to avoid “face threatening acts”, but sometimes you just have to step out for that little person who can’t defend himself. I’m feeling bad for that kid already!

    Regarding parenting in China, I have not witnessed hitting or that sort of irresponsible acts (giving kids alcohol or tobacco or allowing them to do dangerous things), but there is something that has surprised me too many times already: Chinese couples who have their kid (normally after much, MUCH pressure from the grandparents-to-be) and then leave the little baby for the grandparents to raise, and go about with their lives! I am not even referring to the huge amount of grandparents who take care of the grandchild (it’s normally just one) during the day while the parents work; I can understand that daycare in China is truly expensive: I’m talking about giving birth and then, bye baby, 24/7 with the grandparents for at least 3 years.

    Another thing I don’t understand is how everyone’s life seems to revolve around the kid once it is born, or even around the pregnant lady. When my sister in law got pregnant in Nanjing, she got her own parents plus my in laws move in with her (ok, my in laws lived in Nanjing already… but her parents lived a little far, in Tibet!). The kid is already 18 months old, but both sets of grandparents (plus a woman they have hired) are still with them, taking care of the kid, cleaning and cooking. Wtf, 8 people concentrating on one. single. child! (with the exception of one of them getting sick; in that case they move out, not to spread the illness to the child).

    What about the yuezi traditions/superstitions? So much could be said.

    My husband says these are merely cultural differences, but there are cultural differences no bridge can save for me. My mother in law freaks out that we raise 2 kids without anyone helping, I freak out with the adults-as-satellites-and-no-showers-after-giving-birth approach. No possible solution there.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m not saying any of the things mentioned in my comment are common practice in China in general. It is based on my own personal experience.

    Sorry for the long comment, but it is such a fascinating subject, more so once you’re a mother yourself :)

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I love your long comment Olga, sorry for not replying to you sooner!

    My morale says that I should have said something, I really wanted to. I guess because it was a happy dinner, friend’s baby turned 1 month old, so I didn’t want to ruin the night. But of course it’s not a good readon not to do the right thing.

    Oh, I can so imagine how much parenting advice we will get in the future. They are quite against as moving out too, even just a few meters, because they think we can’t take care of our selves.

    [Reply]

  • R Zhao

    Do you really think this is unique to China?

    Maybe Chinese people’s attitudes towards these things are different, but all the examples you give are certainly problems, to some extent, in my home country. I think some of the problems stem from socio-economic and education level. Not that it’s an excuse, but people often don’t know better, or perhaps they do but are spread so thin that they make poor decisions (such as having an 8-year old watch a baby).

    Where I live in China, I very rarely see people mistreating children. Perhaps because I’m in the city and most people are fairly well-educated and a lot of people are middle class Chinese. I actually find most Chinese quite kind and tolerant towards children.

    I have a step-daughter and am now pregnant with my first child. Luckily, I have a really good relationship with my mother-in-law. I know my husband’s mother spoils my step-daughter and will spoil our baby, but my grandparents were guilty of the same with me. If you are able to be the primary caregiver and don’t overindulge your child when they are at home with you, I think it’s okay. It’s complicated if you have troubles setting boundaries with your in-laws though. I think if your boyfriend/husband shares your views, that may be the most important battle won!

    [Reply]

    Chris_Waugh Reply:

    Ah, yes, combine this:

    “I think some of the problems stem from socio-economic and education level.”

    with this:

    “It’s complicated if you have troubles setting boundaries with your in-laws though.”

    Yep. I had a months long battle with my in-laws about whether my daughter needed to be in her car seat when we’re in the car. “It’ll be ok if I hold her, you just drive carefully” they kept saying. Yeah, because I can really control the actions of other drivers, right? Anyway, I finally won when the Beijing police (@平安北京) posted a video of crash tests at 40km/h in which the dummy mummy was holding the dummy baby. I passed that on to my wife who was able to explain to her parents that actually, I wasn’t just being a crazy foreigner. Still there was one time on the way out to my brother in law’s house when the wee one started crying and they decided she was uncomfortable so the obvious solution was to take her seatbelt off, but I quickly put a stop to that idea. These are people with basically zero education and little experience of the world beyond the villages they’ve spent their lives in who did not grow up around cars like I did (I had to teach them how to put a seatbelt on, but they still can’t even wind their own window up), so it’s not easy for them to get their heads around the fact that my ideas for how things should be done might in some circumstances actually be more appropriate than theirs. In some cases, yes, there is no excuse (like giving alcohol to a child – I’ve also seen that. Alcoholic by the age of two is not good), but in other cases they’re just coming from a wildly different life experience and educational background and really, honestly, don’t know how you’re seeing things or what your reasoning is. That can be frustrating, especially when it’s something as fundamental as road safety, but it has to be negotiated somehow or another.

    I would argue that it’s some kind of fundamental law of nature, something akin to the laws of thermodynamics, that all grandparents must spoil their grandchildren. That can be a hard one, especially if the grandparents are living with you or otherwise responsible for childcare (I’m glad my daughter is now in kindergarten/preschool so we no longer need that… ), but I suppose it’s all part of the give-and-take regardless of the cultural circumstances. I agree with your:

    “If you are able to be the primary caregiver and don’t overindulge your child when they are at home with you, I think it’s okay.”

    [Reply]

    R Zhao Reply:

    It’s interesting how Chinese people often dismiss the need for a car seat but in my home country (the US) some people are ready to burn you at the stake if you don’t have your child strapped in one correctly (let alone not using one at all!). On the other hand, I have been scolding time and again for my reckless behavior during my pregnancy. What do Chinese people scold me for? Oh, just about everything. Wearing contact lenses, drinking anything caffeinated or carbonated, using nail polish, and, well, you get the picture. These things are not an issue in the US but I have a hard time convincing Chinese people, in their 5000 years of wisdom, of that.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Very interesting R. I have the impression that Chinese are very careful during pregnancy and there is a huge list of thing you can and can’t do, what you can and can’t eat.

    I’m sure it’s hard to find a common understanding when everyone thinks their way is the right way. I will probably be more likely to listen to my moms advice when the time comes and see what the recommendations are in Finland. And try to ably that to living in China.

    [Reply]

    R Zhao Reply:

    It is indeed a very, very long list. I had someone ask me today if it was really okay for me to be using an oven since I am pregnant! My husband also scolded me this afternoon for using cough drops.

    You have to try and sift through the advice. Talk to your mother, foreign friends, and doctor (I saw one while I was in the U.S. which was very helpful). Use your best judgement. I try not to be bothered by it, but I do get tired of being micro-managed by everyone. I’m sure it will continue once the baby arrives. :)

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Wow, had never heard it to be dangerous to use oven when you’re pregnant! Oh yes, I believe the micro-managing only increases when the baby is born :)

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    “in other cases they’re just coming from a wildly different life
    experience and educational background and really, honestly, don’t know
    how you’re seeing things or what your reasoning is.”

    I’ve experiences this right now with our coming move to the old house. It’s hard for anyone to understand why we would want to live in the old house, when our new house is so big and has plenty of room for everyone.

    They are worried that it will be too much pressure for us to live on our own. In my opinion that’s the normal life, you become and adult and you will have responsibilities and that’s life. But of course my boyfriend’s parents generation have lived in a completely different world with much lacking education, that it’s no surprise that our ideas are different too.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Besides Finland and China I haven’t lived in any other country so I haven’t witnessed their parenting styles that closely.

    What I wrote in this blog post are something that I have recently seen or heard in China, and they do have shocked me a bit.

    [Reply]

    R Zhao Reply:

    Yes , and there is probably a lot of variation in parenting between Western countries. There are so many differences even within the US that it’s shocking, but I guess that’s to be expected when you are in a “melting pot” (as the US is often referred to). We have huge immigrant populations, and huge gaps in education and income, with this comes many different attitudes and practices. China is also such a big country that I imagine there is a bit of variation across the country.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    This reminds me of how sometimes I’m asked what foreigners/Westerners/Europeans think about this issue and there is just no way I can answer for all of us. Finland in in Europe, yes, but the differences are so huge. Perhaps I could compare it to China, as the Chinese also regard the differences inside their country to be huge too.

    [Reply]

  • Cassandra

    You brought up some obvious examples of bad parenting so I am not sharing an opinion on those things but more of the cultural traditions/parental differences between westerners and chinese. As a former childbirth educator/doula and having been immersed in Chinese culture as well, the Chinese culture has a lot of wisdom with pregnancy, childbirth,postpartum, and child rearing. Hopefully you can pick out the best and use the best from your own culture. I did a lot of cultural research on child-rearing when pregnant and that really helped me feel comfortable using my instincts and find what works for me and my family. Some of my Chinese friends over here have a great deal of stress from Western spouses to do things the “American” way or on the other side some are pretty lucky- their Chinese families sacrifice months and a great deal of money to come help them while they are pregnant/have a new baby while their Western mother in laws a few minutes/hours away do not lift a finger to help them LOL. People who haven’t had children have ideas from what they see and once they have a child they understand more of why, I know I was that way, so just try to keep an open mind. As far as spoiling, my father in law always says that you can never spoil a child with too much love/time/positive attention, just with things so that helps me figure out what is the spoiling point:)

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Cassandra, if you can point us to a direction or to a resource about pregnancy and parenting in China, I’m sure we all would really appreciate it :)

    Parenting is easy until that day you become a parent your self. In a multicultural relationship I find it important to discuss these things before hand, even though it’s impossible to be ready for all the differences we find out when the time comes.

    [Reply]

    Jack Reply:

    I can help you with that ;)
    Search “Ember Swift Preggers in China” (I can’t paste link since I know you block them)
    Her blog has some good resources on giving birth in China (the natural way instead of C-section) plus she writes beautifully.

    [Reply]

    Jack Reply:

    PS, the information resources on her site is on her blog post “Fare Thee Well!” posted on February 1st, 2012. But read all her blogs on that section anyway, they are all very well written, and quite an eye opener (from my perspective).

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Oh yes! I totally forgot about that blog! It can be found here: http://www.emberswift.com/category/blogs/preggers-in-china-cat

    In order to prevent spam I check all the links before approving the comment, but links to interesting or important sources are of course welcome.

    [Reply]

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  • mira

    I understand there are cultural differences; however who ultimately has the say of what is good/not good, acceptable/not acceptable if you have up to 6 people looking after the well being of a child?

    For instance Chris and the car seat…he finally “one the battle” but why should there have been a
    battle when he is the father and what he says especially on the safety of his child should be final. Whether he is a foreigner or a Chinese he is the father. He is not disrespecting his in-laws but he knows what he is doing is the right thing for his child.

    Here in Shanghai you see fathers riding scooters while the mother’s holding new born, it’s frightening to see but it happens.

    With 6 adults to one child if there’s no discipline, no boundaries or no teaching of good and bad, right or
    wrong, morals and ethics then the child will grow up spoilt and un ruling with no thoughts of others or consequences.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I guess in China it isn’t that clear that the parent has the final say about the children, as grandparents and other relatives often have lots of advice and opinions as well.

    [Reply]

  • Peter Hu China

    you should put ‘s’ after example or reason,even though it is a blog, it should follow from the Enlish grammar

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Thank you for pointing it out Peter.

    [Reply]

  • Peter Hu China

    sometimes babies or children are spoiled in China,because there is only one baby in each family,so try to have two children,then they won’t spoil them.Believe me,it is true.But do keep a good relationship with the old generation,because they…have the power to say what they think is right

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I will try my best to follow along my boyfriend’s mother’s words: “Have the best from both cultures”. Of course we might disagree what the “best” is, but in general that is great advice.

    [Reply]

  • Jack

    BTW, there are bad parents everywhere. Take my 25 years of living abroad in various countries, I have seen bad parenting everywhere. Just recently, a father was charged with murdering his own step daughter over here in Australia (google “Tanilla Warrick-Deaves murder”) where the little 2 YEAR OLD girl was beaten and left to die in her pram because she didn’t put the chicken back in the cage (SHE IS 2 YEAR OLD!). The parents are white BTW. And also couple of court cases where parents were so neglecting (addicted to gambling) their 18-month-old twins were starved to death (google “They died forgotten: how gambling and alcohol shut the door on twins’ lives”), and another one where the parents tortured and INTENTIONALLY starved Four-year-old boy to death (google “Daniel Pelka”). All happened this year (as far as I can remember) in Australia and all of them white australian parents. (There is actually a website dedicated to this – google “badbreeders”) My personal experience growing up tells me in lower socio-economic class domestic violence is almost universal – drunken father beating their children viciously (I have witness with my own eyes) or child abuse out of neglect or ignorance. So it is not just a China thing.

    [Reply]

  • BozHogan

    Hi Sara,

    I found this blog very interesting. Thank you. I did have one question though. You refer to parents hitting children several times. Do you mean it in a way that is different from and more severe than spanking a child? I don’t believe in either, but it would be helpful if you clarified your meaning when we imagine running into this behavior in others. For instance, in America, I would certainly intervene if I saw an adult hitting a child. However, I would not if I saw one spanking, assuming it wasn’t so extreme as to risk physical damage. Thanks for clarifying.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    I haven’t seen anyone hitting or spanking their child, I would believe that to happen in private. But I have heard a kid being hit (based on what they were talking and the sounds) and I’ve heard parents talk about hitting or spanking their kids if they don’t behave.

    [Reply]

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  • Sydney

    From my experience kids are more spoiled than molested in China, precious snowflakes and so-on. The saddest thing including kids that I have seen in China was a kid hitting violently (not for playing) one of his teachers (a good guy, qualified for his job and having the passion of teaching, not a child molester) while the parents and management/principal were smiling at it and taking photos, telling how strong the boy is. The poor teacher could not say anything or he would have lost his job.

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    This is another problem I’ve been thinking as well. I really can’t understand the behavior of those parents you described. How would they allow their kid to hit someone?

    [Reply]

    Sydney Reply:

    No idea, I am a Malaysian born Chinese and I would never let my kid (if I had one) hit people, I would never spoil him or make him feel like he can do whatever he want without assuming the consequences.
    During my stay in China I had hard time to identify myself to Mainland Chinese people or even to understand them, there is a gigantic cultural gap between them and people from the diaspora like me, like if we were two completely different people, however I have no problem to blend with Taiwanese, Hongkers, ABCs and so-on.

    [Reply]

  • Kaiser

    我非常不同意你的看法。我的大祖父母,祖父母,父母和我自己不但都小时后好几次被打屁股了,而且成了大人以后我们都没有问题。更何况虽然我常常打我儿子的屁股为了教他适当行为但是他一点儿也不害怕我。加上跟他的同学相比我儿子尤为自信。所以我不同意你的看法。

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    每个人有自己的看法,有时候只能agree to disagree.

    [Reply]

    Kaiser Reply:

    即使你不信上帝这还是特好古老智慧:“不打屁股就会宠坏孩子” 圣经旧约全书

    [Reply]

  • W

    Umm I feel that this is merely the fact that you haven’t immersed yourself into the Chinese culture yet. I’m chinese-born and raised, and I can assure you that all the things you have written above are mere parts of our culture, that we can take as a joke or something to laugh off. It’s the same everywhere, the cultural differences. For example, in Western countries, we Chinese also find some of the cultural actions inappropriate and stuff. In fact, I’m a teenager, and there was ones where my friend and I even joked about how our parents hit us, and the different ways of hitting. It may seem offending to you, but it is part and parcel of our childhood and growing-up process. Sometimes, don’t be too quick to judge somebody’s actions without first basing it off their very own unique culture. :)

    [Reply]

    Sara Jaaksola Reply:

    Hi W!

    Living in a new culture is a process and I’m not sure if you can immerse yourself truly 100%. After all, you are who you are and carry your own culture with you as well. Visiting and living in different cultures is a gift and can teach us so much about others and ourselves as well.

    One thing I don’t want to take as a joke is hitting children though, and in Finland it’s just not a matter of opinion but law as well.

    [Reply]