China’s Grandparent Trap

How China’s children are being cared by their grandparents.

One of the major differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is the importance of the nuclear family versus the extended family. Individualistic cultures stress self-reliance, the rights of individuals to make their own decisions, and the right to a private life. In contrast collectivist cultures emphasize an extended family structure in which loyalty is demanded and interdependence is cultivated as well as enforced.

China, being one of the most collectivistic societies in the world, has a strong extended family tradition where grandparents enjoy a powerful and influential position within the clan. As China’s economy improves and women enter the workforce at a greater rate, grandparents have taken on an additional role of custodians and caregivers to their grandchildren. Sometimes these roles have extended beyond normal childminding activities during working hours to fulltime adoption or childrearing.

“One fifth or 60 million plus of all children in China are growing up in rural towns, villages and small cities in the countryside.”

But this trend goes beyond the mere fact that there are more two-career couples than ever before. Other factors that play a role in this Chinese grandparent and grandchild phenomenon is the ever increasing migration to large urban hubs from rural and small town communities. For the most part when parents leave their homes in search of brighter horizons in major metropolitan cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Dongguan their children stay behind under the care of their grandparents. These are the children that are now commonly referred to as the “left-behind children”.

In China there are some very good financial reasons for moving to a major city. While the median salary in Beijing hovers around $900 per month, with the upper-middle class topping out at $3000 monthly, the decision for rural people to move there is an easy one to make. The main reason is that the median salary in rural communities is approximately 37% of that in Beijing or any of the other major cities for that matter. In addition schools in the major metropolitan hubs are light years ahead of their rural counterparts.

Abundant universities and hospitals and excellent public transportation are other reasons why living conditions in major cities is highly coveted by rural people. It is estimated that 36% of the population in Beijing alone is made up of rural migrants. No matter how harsh living conditions in major cities can be for this group of workers it is infinitely better than what rural communities have to offer.

However, no matter how much of an improvement in living conditions a migrant worker can experience by moving to a first or second tier city, there are some difficulties migrants will encounter. Mainly, the cost of living is substantially higher. A rental apartment’s average cost in Beijing is $1200 per month.

For a new arrival without an education or marketable trade or craft skills who makes between $500 and $700 per month, renting an apartment that represents twice their monthly earnings is nothing but a pipe dream. It is no wonder that a vast majority of migrant workers opt to leave their children with grandparents. It is financially unfeasible to act in any other way.

Young Luo Hongniu, aged eight, is being raised by his grandparents in the rural province of Anshun ( — 2017)

Currently, it is estimated that one fifth or 60 million plus of all children in China are growing up in rural towns, villages and small cities in the countryside. Their parents live and work hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles away in assembly lines, construction sights, or as security guards earning low wages, and attempting to send money home, although most likely unable to in any meaningful way.

Unfortunately, these left-behind children are living in poverty, receiving poor education, and oftentimes forced to go to work at an early age. Surveys conducted by the government show that nearly 50 percent of children left behind suffer from injuries which include slashing, burns, attacked by animals and by falling. This being far higher than children living with their parents. These children represent 61 percent of new admitted patients in child hospitals and 55.2% of child sexual abuse in China. (Beijing Normal University Scientific Communication and Education Research Center. pp1–3)

‘Left behind’ child Luo Hongni, 11, collapses from the weight as she carries flowers while doing chores in the fields in Anshun, China (Daily 2017)

Left behind children suffer from psychological performance and behavioral problems at a far greater rate than those living with their parents or in dormitories. These children tend to skip classes at a far greater rate than those living with their parents. They are more vulnerable to cigarette, alcohol, gambling, shoplifting and robbery. They perform worse in school and in society in general than their normal counterparts. They express higher levels of pessimism and lower satisfaction with livelihood. They are usually more introvert and stubborn. (Counting the cost of China’s left-behind children — John Sudworth BBC News)

“First and foremost my husband and I are very busy. But Beijing’s air pollution is another factor influencing our decision. Our child will be able to live in an environment with clean air back home.”

Another group of children, although to a much lesser degree are the offsprings of couples who prior to marriage migrated to tier one or tier two cities in order to attend colleges and universities but decided to stay after graduation. Undoubtedly many of these people meet, marry and have children. Once children are born, they realize that when both parents are forced to work twelve to fourteen hours daily in order to make ends meet raising children becomes a substantial burden. It is at this time they reach agreements with in-laws to take the children back to the communities they come from in order to raise them on a permanent basis. They make this decision knowing that they will most likely only get to see a son or daughter once, maybe twice per year.

During a conversation on this subject, Wang Yanyan, a mother of a three-year-old boy intimated her feelings during an email interview on the decision to allow her in-laws to take their son back to the small town they come from. She said: “First and foremost my husband and I are very busy. But Beijing’s air pollution is another factor influencing our decision. Our child will be able to live in an environment with clean air back home.”

“My in-laws came to Beijing but could not adapt themselves to such a large city. But additionally the cost of living in our hometown is much lower. However the most important thing is that I am sure my son can feel my love even if we are not together. I know my in-laws will make sure he is properly educated. My husband and I both have university degrees, and we have made plans that he too will attend university.”

“We can still communicate everyday via Facetime or WeChat and will be able to follow up on his performance in school. We plan to go back to our hometown every two or three months and specially during holidays.”

“Some 90 percent of children under the age of three are being cared for by at least one grandparent.”

However to a much greater extend children of two-career couples are being cared for and reared by their grandparents who live in these big cities on a permanent basis. In Shanghai for instance, some 90 percent of children under the age of three are being cared for by at least one grandparent. Keep in mind that in China children can enter kindergarten immediately after their third birthday. Once they enter kindergarten they are allowed to stay at the school until late, allowing parents to pick them up after a day’s work.

This is an astonishing figure which while pragmatic from the perspective of giving parents the freedom to concentrate fully on their careers as they shift the responsibility of childcare to their parents, it casts doubts on the impact this practice might have on children’s education as well as their level of maturity as they grow. In a study conducted by the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission found that 69.5 percent of grandparents surveyed believe that their grandchildren do not need an education. This group believes that “eating” and “sleeping” are more important than education.

Other survey’s point to the fact that 40 percent of young parents are dissatisfied with grandparent childrearing methods. However, they continue to leave their children in the grandparents care. (CNN Travel — Shirley Chen -2011)

Complicating matters worse is the fact that Chinese society is organized in a top-down authority structure. Government as well as corporate decisions originate at the top of the organization, and family structures are no different. It is no secret that grandparents control their children even after they have grown and have children of their own. In Western cultures where nuclear families have a great deal more autonomy, the older members of the clan would have given up power the moment their children move out of their homes. Especially once they marry and have children of their own. A strong argument can be made that this approach would produce better educational, mental health and maturity outcomes for the children.

Unfortunately, changing this social phenomenon would not be easy. Cultures don’t change overnight. Wages would have to rise substantially in order for parents to be able to afford nannies or au pairs. White and blue collar workers alike, would have to acquire more rights and perhaps even more power in the work place, forcing companies to stop demanding extremely long hours from their employees. Ultimately Chinese culture would have to move away from an extended family structure into one where the nuclear family has more autonomy. This perhaps would be the greater challenge.

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