Parenting Crisis Sends China’s Moms and Dads Back to School


SHANDONG, East China — Huang Wenjuan never thought there was anything wrong with her approach to parenting until her teenage daughter stormed out of their house after a big fight. Huang and her husband searched all over the city that snowy February night, and eventually found her in the stairwell of their apartment building. “She could see us, and said she just wanted us to suffer,” the 40-year-old mother tells Sixth Tone.

The fight was the lowest point of a monthslong conflict that started when Huang demanded her daughter attend afterschool classes. Huang argued that it was what all the other students did, but her daughter said she didn’t need extra lessons to keep up in class. “I knew she was right, but her refusal challenged my authority as a parent, which made me so anxious that I cracked,” Huang recalls.

Raising a child in China comes with its own set of concerns. Parents tend to spoil their child — often their only child — while simultaneously putting them under immense pressure to do well in China’s competitive education system. Another worry is the amount of time children spend with indulgent grandparents, who are sometimes blamed for China’s burgeoning population of “bear kids” — a term for screaming children prone to tantrums. All in all, 95 percent of nearly 7,500 respondents in a 2016 survey said they felt anxious about their parenting.

The government shares these misgivings. To cope with increasing numbers of “overly indulgent and demanding” parents who valued grades more than “morals and abilities,” the Ministry of Education issued a guideline on education reform in 2015. It suggested establishing more services to guide family education — namely, in the form of parenting schools — to help parents cultivate a “rational educational philosophy.” A five-year plan released in 2016 required most kindergartens, primary schools, and middle schools nationwide to organize classes for parents by 2020.

Local governments have heeded the call to educate moms and dads. In June, Beijing began sending regular text messages containing parental-guidance tips to 500,000 of the city’s families with school-age children. The southwestern megacity of Chongqing implemented the country’s first ordinance to promote family education in September of 2016, and last year admonished over 1,300 parents or guardians whose parenting the police deemed inadequate. Last year, Chengdu, Sichuan’s provincial capital, said it would force parents of juvenile delinquents to join parenting classes.

A parent takes notes during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A parent takes notes during a child-rearing class in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

While Huang was looking for a solution to improve her relationship with her daughter, a friend told her about a parenting school in her city of Zoucheng. Every Wednesday evening, Huang and dozens of other parents — mostly mothers — show up at a garage-turned-studio to discuss books on parenting, under the guidance of a family-education instructor. People arrive with all sorts of problems, says Zhang Yuanyuan, the school’s organizer. When it had just started in 2016, the free classes only had a few attendees. “But now, the small classroom is jammed with over 30 parents, and some have to stand outside,” Zhang says.

After a few sessions, Huang says she realized that parents should respect children instead of imposing their will on them. “I really regret not giving my daughter enough space to display her own personality and be who she really wanted to be,” Huang confesses. “She couldn’t bear us anymore, and finally, at 14, exploded, which I now think is a good thing.”

Liang Xueqin, 44, has been taking the classes for the past nine months. “I come here with a heavy heart, and go home more relaxed,” she tells Sixth Tone after a session in which they discussed “Positive Discipline for Teenagers,” a book by scholars Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott that teaches parents to respect their children as individuals. “Actually, I’m aware of most of the book’s parenting theories, but just need an observer to remind me, to push me.”

Having grown up with three sisters and a father who would beat them for any perceived wrongdoing, Liang wants to raise her 16-year-old son in a healthier way. She dotes on her child, but she also pressures him to excel academically — something her parents never expected of her. “That’s why every time he had a dip in his grades, I’d be very anxious,” She says. “But now I’ve learned to accept his imperfections, his acts of rebellion, and his fluctuating grades.”

Elsewhere in Zoucheng, schools have drawn on the city’s history as the birthplace of ancient Chinese thinker and influential Confucian figure Mencius. His philosophy still heavily influences contemporary Chinese parent-child relationships.

An engraved monument that reads ‘the greatest mother of all,’ in reference to the mother of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, stands on the grounds of the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

An engraved monument that reads ‘the greatest mother of all,’ in reference to the mother of ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, stands on the grounds of the Mencius Temple in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying

Zhao Yonghe — the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, a governmental organ in Zoucheng that promotes the study of Mencius — established a parenting school in February 2017. Before he became an official, Zhao was a teacher at a rural school. He always wondered why teachers needed years of training, whereas people could become parents without any education. “It’s terrible to think that many parents don’t even realize there are problems in their parenting,” he tells Sixth Tone in his office.

Xu Shuang is one of Mencius Research Institute’s full-time lecturers with over a decade of experience researching how ancient Chinese educated their children. She talks about a set of traditions and rules that were once passed down and improved upon in wealthy, extended families throughout generations. “The family itself is an educational institute,” Xu says. “I think that [this concept] is a great tradition that modern families need to inherit.”

Most Chinese are familiar with the legend of Mencius’ mother, who changed houses three times before finding a location she felt best suited her son’s upbringing needs. The story lives on in the form of an idiom, “Mencius’ Mother Moved Thrice,” used to describe Chinese parents expending limitless resources to provide their children with a good education. Zhao’s school draws on such classics of Chinese philosophy to develop parenting skills. “I think that the study of traditional culture should be used to improve people’s morality,” he says. “Here in Zoucheng, Mencius’ mother is a great example of a qualified parent. There’s no place better-suited for parenting schools than [our city].”

According to Zhao, parents in Zoucheng are proud of the city’s culture and attach great importance to their childen’s education, but they still mainly focus on grades. When asked about his own experience raising kids, Zhao says without hesitation that he has regrets. “I spoiled them and guilt-tripped them,” Zhao says. “I regret treating them like little kids when they were mature enough to make their own decisions, and also pressuring them to do things my way out of love.” Though Zhao says his twin daughters have become happy, well-adjusted young women, he hopes that he can help young parents avoid his mistakes. So far, more than 10,000 people have attended his lectures.

Zhao Yonghe, the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, gives a lecture on parenting in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhao Yonghe, the Party secretary of Mencius Research Institute, gives a lecture on parenting in Zoucheng, Shandong province, Sept. 5, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Zhou Li has been to Zhao’s lectures twice. He’s been struggling with how to discipline his 10-year-old son. He figured out what he was doing wrong when Zhao explained that children are “the shadow of their parents.” “Then, I started reading books instead of playing on my phone next to my son while he did his homework, and soon after, I noticed he was becoming much more focused,” says the 38-year-old. “It is possible that I am still not a qualified parent, but I am better than I was before.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

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Credit Score for Canines Keeps Dog Owners on a Short Leash


SHANDONG, East China — Ever since she was bitten on the leg at age 5, Zhang Qiaoling has been afraid of dogs. Years later, as a teenager, the sight of an unleashed dog still scared her so much she’d freeze on the spot. “I hate it when owners tell me their dogs don’t bite,” Zhang, now 25, tells Sixth Tone. “In my eyes, even a cute breed like a toy poodle is basically a wolf — never mind something like a husky.”

Dog ownership has increased sharply in China, with over 50 million pet dogs currently registered in China and corresponding increases in sales of everything from high-end pet products to breeding and cremation services. But the large number of pooches has brought resentment among those who don’t consider them to be man’s best friend and who blame dog owners for raising badly behaved pups.

Luckily for Zhang, unleashed dogs have become a rare sight in her hometown of Jinan. Early last year, the city launched its “Civilized Dog-Raising Credit Score System,” a first in China that has since been copied elsewhere. Reminiscent of other point systems introduced throughout the country that aim to improve people’s behavior, its stated goal is to make dog owners more responsible.

The compulsory program gives every registered dog owner a license that starts with 12 points. As with drivers’ licenses, points are deducted for infractions, such as walking a dog without a leash or tag, not cleaning up poo, or being reported for a disturbance. Good deeds, like volunteering in kennels, are rewarded with extra points.

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A pet owner’s smartphone displays the registration information for her dog in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Over 1,400 owners have thus far been penalized under the new system, 122 of whom lost all their points and had their dogs placed in a government kennel until they passed a test on pet policies. According to police, 10 owners of confiscated dogs have yet to pass so far.

The prospect of losing one’s beloved pet is apparently effective. Authorities said in August that 80 percent of dog owners now use leashes — up from 20 percent in previous years — and that in 2017 complaints about barking and biting had decreased by 65 percent year-on-year. State-owned newspaper Legal Daily has praised the point system for its “strong operability and great effectiveness,” and argued for its countrywide implementation.

Zhang, too, supports the new system. She feels like almost everyone walks their pups on a leash nowadays, and she rarely sees dog poo on the street. “Civilization does need a strict legal push,” she says.

When Xing Ruizhi took her black-and-white foster pet, Coco, to be registered last year, the dog got vaccinated, had her picture taken, and was implanted with a microchip. Xing received a tag with a QR code that now dangles off Coco’s collar. When scanned, police can look up the breed, age, immunization status, owner information, and point total for each of the city’s 100,000 or so dogs. The tag also comes with geolocation technology that can help Xing find Coco if she ever goes missing. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, but it cost Xing 400 yuan ($58) — and she’ll have to pay an additional 200 yuan each year for tag inspections.

The points program also gives police the right to confiscate unregistered dogs, owned by people who might want to avoid such fees or who have more than the one dog per person allowed by the city. Last summer, when Ken Cari was walking 1-year-old Jenny in his neighborhood, passers-by warned him that police were on patrol in the area. Since he hadn’t yet applied for the dog registration, Cari and Jenny high-tailed it back home. “I heard the dogs need a license and can only be a certain size,” he says while petting Jenny, a decidedly rotund golden retriever. “I wouldn’t let them take her away from me. She’s my baby.”

When Cari, who hails from Montana in the U.S., called the dog management office to ask how to register, he was told that foreigners like him couldn’t own a dog, regardless of his fluent Jinan dialect and long-term job in the city. The next day, accompanied by a local friend, Cari took Jenny to the police station. They waited for hours as staff made endless phone calls to their superiors. In the end, he got the license.

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Ken Cari sits on a bench beside his dog, Jenny, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Everyone in the neighborhood knows Cari and Jenny: “A big foreigner raising a fat dog,” he laughs. Cari has noticed an increasing number of dogs in his apartment complex, from just a few when he moved in about a decade ago to more than 40 now. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the change, however. One major reason for this, Cari believes, is that few owners in China get their dogs spayed or neutered, leading to large numbers of strays and a public perception that the animals are “dirty, scary, and mean.” Dog bites are a frequent occurrence: Statistics show that 60 to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines are issued annually in China, and that 644 people died from infections in 2016, mostly from dog bites.

Canine-related tensions turn hostile at times. In July, a Chinese pharmaceutical company was found to have produced and sold substandard rabies vaccines. Following the scandal, a viral post on the social media platform Weibo suggested scattering pieces of meat with isoniazid, a drug for treating tuberculosis, to kill dogs walking around unleashed. The post was ultimately deleted, but not before generating pages of discussion and hundreds of thousands of views. Shops on the e-commerce site Taobao immediately pulled isoniazid off the digital shelves to avoid legal trouble.

When people get hurt by dogs, the public often questions the lack of severe punishment for owners, who usually only need to refund the cost of victims’ vaccinations. In September, for example, a court in the northeastern Liaoning province ordered an owner to compensate the family of a child whose face was bitten by an unleashed dog with roughly 19,000 yuan, which equals $2,740 — a fraction of the average amount paid out for dog bite claims in the U.S. last year: $37,051. In addition, almost every U.S. state has laws and regulations on how to raise dogs. But in China, now one of the largest pet-owning countries in the world, regulations and their implementation lag behind.

Xing, the owner of Coco, supports Jinan’s point system but says the government should do more to help dog owners in return, such as building parks where the pets can run free. Many dog owners would also like to see an animal protection law. Currently, owners can only file cumbersome lawsuits based on dogs’ legal status as property in cases of harm. Especially since the isoniazid post, such scenarios have worried pet parents. “I have no choice but to put a muzzle on my dog to protect her, but I know she really hates it,” Xing says.

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Xing Ruizhi holds her foster dog, Coco, in Jinan, Shandong province, Aug. 31, 2018. Fan Yiying

Jinan dog owner Liu Jin says a friend’s dog was poisoned to death last month after eating a piece of sausage laced with drugs. Her own dog, a tricolor corgi called Baobao, now only goes outside on a leash. Liu had a hard time convincing her father to stick to the rule, however. “He is so stubborn,” she says. But Liu’s father caught on after police spotted him walking a free-roaming Baobao and deducted three points from the family’s license. “Ever since then, he has followed the rule because he doesn’t want our dog to be taken away,” Liu says.

Yet not everyone is a good boy. Thirty-something Leng Bing owns a bar hidden down a lane in Jinan’s historical city center. To the delight of his customers, he sometimes goes to work with his aging crossbreed, Dian Dian. Though Leng registered him last year and put a tag around his neck, he still walks Dian Dian unleashed. “I only walk him in my residential area,” he says while pouring a beer for a customer. “So I think it’s okay to set him free and release his inner nature.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.