Free-range parenting in China

This from Cai Yingli, Ding Jie, and Ren Qiuyu on Caixin:

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Hmm. Our 9 year old daughter did comedy camp. I would be quite surprised if she were ever told to practice more.

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I suppose playing softball improves our daughter’s athleticism. But our main goals are exposure to team situations and, again, fun. If given a forced choice between “she improves” and “she enjoys herself” we’d pick the latter.

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Well now I really feel like a slacker parent. Our 11-year-old has never done homework at 10.40pm.

The ‘free-range’ method

Xiao Cha’s (pseudonym) family has a decidedly different approach. He is in fourth grade at an elementary school in one of the central districts of Beijing. There was no pressure for him to get into a competitive training or high school. He watched as his peers threw themselves into extracurricular academic classes. However, his mother Xueli, who holds a master’s degree from Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, adheres to the principles of “happy learning and freedom to grow.”

For the last three years, Xiao Cha’s summer vacations have involved drama lessons, a week of equestrian summer camp, and two weeks traveling overseas and performing charity activities outside of Beijing. In his final school exams he finished in the middle of his class. Xueli did not require him to take extra lessons outside of school but added a one-on-one online English class.

“I don’t want Xiao Cha to grow up and remember his childhood in cram schools,” Xueli says. In her mind, learning is about life experience and cannot be condensed into 12 years of education. Cram schools can teach knowledge, but they cannot teach experience.

Xueli’s husband objected to this method at first, but eventually gave in. He was not opposed to freeing up Xiao Cha’s summers, but worried it would disadvantage him in the long run. Tuition can teach valuable lessons in efficiency, autonomy, and self-discipline, he said.

Despite divergent educational philosophies, Xueli believes their goals are the same. Many parents choose the cram school route — but why should they, she asks. There’s nothing wrong with finding another way.

Two reactions.

1. I would just like clarification on “their goals are the same.”

What precisely is the goal?

2. Xueli’s parenting is similar to our parenting in Boston, but we have an easier cultural choice. If our daughter struggles in school, a little bit of extra tutoring will move her close to the top.

In China, if “all the other kids” are already getting extra tutoring, then only a VERY large dosage of extra tutoring allows Xiao Cha to rise from his middle-of-the-pack ranking.

Last year, Jiajia transferred from a public school in Haidian to an international school in Shunyi, an affluent district in Beijing’s northeast. Beyond academic pursuits, the international school also offers hockey, and the teachers are very willing to help and are good listeners. In addition, international schools encourage children to ask questions and think critically, read books, and place less importance on results. All of this has made Jiajia more cheerful and confident.

But Xintian still worries about her daughters’ grades. If she wants to return to the result-oriented and obsessed public education system, how will she compete with her peers? How can they find a balance between the “Haidian education” and a “Shunyi education”? Xintian and her husband are taking it as it comes.

“I don’t know if the present education system is suitable for the future world,” Xintian says. “Children have their own pace and interests.” All Xintian can do is slowly guide her children and watch them grow.