“But this was how we brought you up and you turned out alright didn't you?” These sentiments are being expressed by millions of grandparents caught between complaints of under-involvement or over-indulgence in raising their grandchildren. They just don't know which way to turn as family relationships become strained and traditions that have lasted a thousand years are challenged.
Zhao Zengqing works with a Beijing-based media company. He and his wife were both out working all day so when their baby arrived he was looked after by his granny. She was keen to help for she worried that they were too busy to look after the child. From then on the young couple only saw their baby at weekends and their son got to know his grandmother much better than his parents. To their consternation the young couple found their son was picking up bad habits. The boy went on to tell lies and spend money like water. They attributed this to his granny's advancing years making it difficult for her to cope. The couple tried to get their son back on the right track but without much success. Finally his mother couldn't stand what was happening any longer and decided to take the boy away from his grandmother. This did little for harmonious relationships and brought discord into the family for the first time.
The story is typical of millions of Chinese families who depend on the help of grandparents in child-rearing. The topic is growing increasingly controversial and has been much debated. It is recognized as one of the main sources of conflict in families living in China's cities. A recent national survey suggested that in Beijing more than 70 percent of children aged six years and under are brought up mainly by their grandparents rather than their parents. In Shanghai the figure is put at about 60 percent and in Guangzhou at about 50 percent. It reminds us that the grandparents play a particularly important role which will be crucial in determining the characteristics of the next generation in China.
Another survey showed that over sixty percent of juvenile delinquents were under the care of their grandparents when they got into crime. Perhaps it is no surprise that when juvenile delinquency is discussed the unfortunate grandparents tend to come in for some criticism. Even the “Internet addiction” that now seems so common among the youth of today is also being blamed on the elderly. Psychologist Liu Donggang, an associate professor at Chongqing Normal University points out that most “net addicts” either grow up with their grandparents or are affected by domestic violence.
The situation has been developing against a background of significant demographic change. China is fast becoming an “aging society” and it is doing so at a quickening pace. Highly successful family planning policies have introduced the one child family into China's cities. Another factor is that there are so many migrant workers in China. They are too busy trying to make a living to be able to care for their children themselves and they are unlikely to be able to afford to pay for professional child-minders. So it seems inevitable that this is an issue which is here to stay.
“Today's parents have unprecedented high expectations for their children and this has been accompanied by an increasing readiness to question the grandparents' mentoring role. They think that their children can never learn enough. One can understand the parents' aspirations during a time of increasing urbanization but they should realize that the grandparents will find it difficult to keep up with advances in society and in up to date methodologies in children's education,” Wang Jisheng, a doctoral advisor with the Psychology Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told China Newsweek. He had been responsible for a survey covering millions of residents. Regrettably the results showed that ninety-five percent of parents and virtually all grandparents had never studied how to mentor children in a systematic and scientific manner. On the contrary, they speak only of a wealth of experience in bringing up children. In fact there may be several problems lurking away in their style of family education. Wang categorizes families as falling into four types:
A deep generation gap separates the grandparents from their grandchildren. So it is Wang's well informed opinion that he prefers child-raising to be in the hands of the parents rather than the grandparents even if this may not always be entirely satisfactory.
Grandparents' mentoring role questioned
Generally speaking in the western countries, children start their education in kindergarten. After that it's off to school where they have to learn to stand on their own two feet. There are few countries in the world where children grow up with their grandparents but China happens to be one of them. Here many young couples are busy at work while at the same time China is becoming an aging society. So it is not surprising that it has become common for children to go to live their “empty-nester” grandparents. The experts estimate that about half of all the children in China's cities live with their grandparents and are raised under their guidance. But the role of the grandparents as family educators is being increasingly questioned. Some parents however do pay for child-minding care and their children grow up away from the strong formative influence of their grandparents. Nowadays families are smaller and increasingly kids may live away from their parents, sometimes out of necessity but sometimes out of parental choice. In China today the traditional concept of the family is changing. The changes are happening at a time when the role of the grandparents as family educators is itself being challenged.
Back in early 1999 China was beginning to become recognized as an aging society and the problems this would bring to both old and young were finding their way onto the agenda. At that time the sociologists identified two areas to be addressed in order to ensure the well being of China's seniors over the next twenty years. One was the provision of social security benefits for the elderly. The other was to enable them to enjoy their “golden years” free from barriers between them and their grandchildren. Five years have now passed and the debate is still going on. According to Wang Jisheng the time has come to stop discussing the best methodologies and to focus instead on how best to manage the situation as it actually exists.
The ongoing debate has to recognize that a new generation has already grown up but there is still a lack of definitive scientific information on the merits of children being raised by their grandparents. The profile of the issue has been raised by the Chinese government's current determination to work towards improving the ethical, ideological and moral standards of children and young people across the country. Against a background of contradictory views being expressed by the experts, young parents have been actively comparing and contrasting their own personal experiences.
A need to work together
The statistics show that an estimated 10 million minors under the age of 15 in rural areas lack the care of one or both parents. Nearly half see their schoolwork deteriorate when their parents leave home to become migrant workers.
“On the whole, placing family education in the hands of the grandparents has proven to have more negative influences on the children than positive ones,” says Professor Xin Tao with Beijing Normal University. She stresses that the elderly are more likely to provide comfortable living environments than sound formative guidance because they tend to overindulge and dote upon their grandchildren.
Professor Xin adds that the current situation has developed in China not least because most young couples have only one child and the grandparents fear any lack of care on their part might hurt the child. In fact, too much protection from the grandparents will hold back the development of a sense of independence and self-confidence and contribute to weakness of character and dependence on others.
“What's more, traditional thinking coupled with the out-of-date concepts which may be held on to by the elderly, can also undermine a spirit of innovation and creativity in their grandchildren,” she said. “For instance, grandparents usually discourage the children from getting involved in anything that is not clearly prescribed or indeed in anything that is adventurous or in which they might get hurt. But these are also the types of activity most likely to help develop their creative abilities. We should face up to the realities of children being raised under the guidance of their grandparents and work to improve this mode of education within the family for it is going to remain a feature of life in many Chinese families for the foreseeable future. After all, the grandparents themselves wish nothing but the best for their grandchildren. We have to concede that grandparents have some particular benefits to offer given their rich life experience.”
She is of the view that:
Yang Chongyang, an employee in a private company, goes much further in defending child-raising by the grandparents as “absolutely the right thing” on the basis of “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” However a more commonly held stance is one of impartiality, saying that reliance on the grandparents brings both advantages and disadvantages. Most developed countries in the western world are well served by professionally run facilities with qualified childcare personnel available to help young parents take care of and educate their pre-school children. But China as a developing country has yet to develop a similar system, so most Chinese families have no real choice but to rely on the grandparents. Consequently, integrated efforts should be made to promote the development of the children.
So the pressing task at present is for young parents and grandparents to find a better way to promote the strengths of the grandparents' role while compensating for any weaknesses. Bai Junjun, the editor-in-chief of a publication specializing in children's issues suggests that parents should engage in more effective communication with the grandparents and try to agree on how the children are to be raised. For example, grandparents should not interfere when the parents are disciplining their children for doing something wrong or they will become confused by the conflicting instructions coming from their parents and the grandparents. This could lead to children with personality problems.
Meanwhile, the grandparents should pay more attention to matters of moral education, such as respect for others, hard work, and modesty when they are guiding the development of their grandchildren.