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A Balanced Childhood
Chinese parents called to lessen the academic load on school children
By Ni Yanshuo | VOL. 8 June 2017

A Beijing schoolboy inundated with homework burns the night oil (NI YANSHUO)

When he sang about his pain, people listened. Wu Yaojie is a student at Guangchang County Experimental Primary School in southeast China's Jiangxi Province. He has catapulted to stardom after pouring out his heart on Sing Kids on Jiangsu TV on April 30.

The nine-year-old boy strummed his guitar, which is almost as big as him, and sang the self-penned lyrics about how his schoolmates are so smart and talented and yet he is not living up to his parents' expectations.

This meant a lot of pressure on him. "I often dream of the mistakes I made in my tests," he sang. For Wu, the lyrics were a message to his parents, telling them how heavy the pressures are from his workload both at school and home. Also, he believes each child is unique and they should not be compared with others. "But my parents often do so," he said, adding, "I want to be seen as myself rather than a kid of others."

His performance has gone viral as his feeling expressed in his song is shared by many.

Such sentiments have also been echoed by educators. Many modern parents are burdening their children by the constant comparison with their higher-achieving peers, noted Lan Hai, Chief Educator of Schwabing Education, a Beijing-based organization focusing on children education.

"Actually, putting pressure on their children will only exert a negative impact on them," she said.

According to Lan, for parents, keeping comparing their children with other kids is their greatest failure in home education. Constant comparison will lead children to see each other as rivals and always compete with each other, she said. Given this, they will become unaware of how to cooperate with others, and "this will make them feel lonely," she added. And, "now is time to talk about what we should give to our children, only high academic scores or a colorful childhood."

While Wu's song has made many parents begin reexamining the pressure they are giving to their children, experts believe that it is not easy to solve the problem at the current stage, even with this realization from parents.

Children need downtime

Beijing resident Xie Hongzhen has recently been fuming at her 12-year-old son's school performance. The cause was a text message listing the recent exam results and rankings of her son and his schoolmates. Xie's son is a first-year student at a famous middle school in Beijing. Every month, nearly 500 students in this grade take part in exams, after which parents receive the results and ranking of them all.

"When I see his name go up and down frequently on the list, I get so distraught and become increasingly anxious," said Xie. As her son is not favorably ranked on the list, Xie is considering sending him to after-school classes.

Just a few years ago, she was against sending her son to any after-school classes during his primary school days. "At that time, I believed a happy childhood is much more important than a good academic score," she said. "But now, I've changed my mind. These ranking lists made me upset and many of his classmates who rank higher all attend various extracurricular courses."

Xie is one of many worried parents who focus on children's academic studies. According to a survey made by the Chinese Society of Education, more than 137 million primary and junior middle school students participated in after-school classes of various kinds in 2016. In big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, more than 70 percent of these students attended such classes.

According to Lan, the figures show Chinese parents' anxiety about their children's progress. She noted that these parents liken children's growth process to a 100-meter race and think any slowdown at the starting point may influence their final results. "But children's growth process is never a 100-meter race," she said. "It is actually a marathon that needs a person's whole life to complete."

Chinese education authorities in different cities have taken measures to ease students' burdens. For instance, the Beijing Municipal Education Commission stipulates the time for junior middle school students to study at school should be less than eight hours a day and their time doing homework should be limited to 90 minutes. The stipulation aims to enable students to have more time to unwind.

"But many parents just use the time to send their children to after-school classes," said Sun Hongyan, Director of Children Research Institute of China Youth and Children Research Center.

According to Sun, the great pressure from academic studies, lack of relaxation and inadequate communications with their friends are the main causes leading to child psychological problems.

"Children need to relax and release their emotions through various activities. But too much pressure shackles them to the desks and they do not have their own time," said Sun. "Why can't we give them a happy childhood?"

Changing times

According to Lan, to give children a happy childhood, parents should communicate with their children on an equal footing. Parents should not force their children to do what they do not like, and should take into consideration their children's ideas while making decisions.

"In the past, parents would arrange the future of their children. But now, they must change their approach," said Lan. "Because we are now living in a different era."

Going to the university used to be one of the few ways for many youths to change their lives, especially those from rural areas, and that's why people stressed so heavily on school studies. In addition, universities before the 1990s were responsible for securing jobs for their graduates and the better the universities were, the better jobs their graduates could get. Thus, studying hard to enter a better university was the main goal for many students. Their interests in fields other than school courses were usually ignored.

"But now, things have changed. Going to universities does not mean you can get a good job. There are more diversified channels for people to succeed," said Lan. Lifting pressure off children can help them develop their capacities in various aspects, thus giving them more opportunities in their future development, she explained.

According to Lan, different children have different ways to succeed and there is no need for them to only follow the school study method.

As the Chinese saying goes, parents all hope their children can be dragons when they grow up. "But in our diversified world, there are not only dragons, but also elephants, lions and tigers," Lan said, adding that having more free time, children can choose their own path while enjoying their childhood.

On the stage, young Wu Yaojie's eyes were wistful behind his thick eyeglasses, as he sang to his parents in the audience.

"I am only a child. Don't give me too much pressure. Give me more free time so that I will have fond memories of my childhood," he continued.

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