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October 25, 2011

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'Helicopter' parents hit new heights

IN the West, super-protective parents are known as "helicopter parents" who hover all the time. In China they're known as the peidu dajun, or Accompany-for-Study Army, and the term is far from pejorative. Fei Lai reports.

Ban Jin is a 28-year-old marketing professional but she has virtually given up a personal career to be with her five-year-old son, taking him to extra classes like painting and taekwondo, and joining in activities so she can help him later at home.

Even before the boy Meng Deyan was born, Ban and her husband had planned how she would devote herself to him, going with him to extra classes and even fun after-school activities with his peers.

Ban is just one of the millions of doting, protective Chinese parents in the so-called peidu dajun, literally the Accompany-for-Study Army, who go along with their children to extracurricular classes, including English, math, chess, piano, swimming, dancing and many other subjects that are expected to help children get into good schools, get well-paying jobs and get ahead in life.

And since parents pay for all these classes, they want to ensure that their money is well spent. They themselves learn interesting things and like to socialize with other parents as they wait for extra classes to end.

In the West, the phenomenon of overly protective parenting is known as helicopter parenting (always hovering), lawn mower parenting (always smoothing the path), even in Sweden as curling parenting, after the sport in which ice skaters vigorously sweep away obstacles.

In China the practice - and being part of the peidu dajun, at minimum - does not have the same pejorative connotations it does in much of the West. Everyone who can afford to do it, does it. And in China helicopter parenting reaches startling and utterly acceptable heights.

And this includes accompanying children to university. Some parents just go for the first week or two - several hundred parents made headlines in Wuhan in Central China this year when they slept on mats en masse in a gymnasium so they could be with their children and help them.

Some, almost always mothers, actually move to other cities in China and rent apartments so they can keep an eye on children, cook for them, make sure they study hard, don't party or waste precious study time on a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Some, again mothers, cross continents and oceans and move overseas with their children who enter university abroad.

Consider mother Ban. She ensures that her marketing job leaves her free after school to go to class with her son. On weekends and holidays she is completely occupied by escorting her son to painting and taekwondo classes.

On Saturdays and Sundays she gets up an hour later than during the week, 8am - there's no sleeping in or leisurely morning for Ban. She begins a typical day as a peidu (Accompany-for-Study) mother.

She jokes that she's always either in class with her son, or on the way to the classes. The benefit of being on the scene is that Ban can later help her son when he practices taekwondo and painting at home.

"Although many kindergartens teach simple English and easy arithmetic, most parents aren't satisfied with that 'shallow' earning," says Ban. She quotes a common expression, used to justify heavy workloads at very young ages: Don't let your child lose at the starting gate and she notes that many of the better elementary schools have interviews and tests before enrollment. Knowing that other parents are pushing their children at an early age, adds to the pressure.

Devoted moms

"Sometimes, peidu is more tiring than working," says Ban. "As early as my son's birth, my husband and I got acquainted with peidu, and it was sort of like early homework for parents."

Ban gave birth right after college and for the first year and a half, she was a full-time, stay-at-home mom. Her main job was to accompany her child to early education courses for new babies.

It cost 8,000 yuan (US$1,253 at the time) for 45, 45-minute classes at Gymboree, a learning program for children from 1-5 years old. Supervised by a professional, she played games with her son, sang songs for him and even helped him with the most basic movements, such as lifting his feet for exercise.

Ban started working when her son was about two years old, turning down good offers because they required longer working hours and frequent business trips.

"How much I can earn is an insignificant consideration. I chose a position that allows me to leave work on time and doesn't involve overtime work or business trips," says Ban.

"I could have a better salary and position at my age, but this is a kind of sacrifice for my son. Otherwise, if I took a better job, I wouldn't have so much time to accompany him."

The boy now loves toy cars and anything on wheels. He also likes to ride his mechanical scooter and go roller skating. Whenever he goes out, his mom watches over him. "I hope he can study abroad for college," Ban says, "but I won't accompany him any more by that time. He should be independent enough. I want to accompany his father instead."

While Ban says she is confident in her son's future independence and resourcefulness for college, not all mothers and fathers are so sure of their children.

Some real estate agents around Shanghai's university campuses do not agree and they encounter quite a few mothers who rent apartments nearby so they can take care of their children in university.

Several agents around Fudan and Tongji universities says that after the new semester started in September, older, lower-rent communities have been sought-after by parents from other provinces whose children are studying in Shanghai.

"These are usually old, two-bedroom apartments, costing around 2,600 yuan a month, which isn't too much of a burden," says realtor Zhou Wenlongin Yangpu District.

"Some parents fear their daughters will fall in love with some guy and live together. Some fear that they will not be able to get used to the food in Shanghai," says Zhou. Others fear their children will get confused and emotionally lost in the big city, and even be lost to their family since they are far away from family and caring parents, Zhou says.

The subject of parenting, guiding children to a successful life - and over-parenting - are widely discussed. Many schools restrict physical activity lest children be hurt; many parents don't let their children run around outside with other children and just horse around.

Professor Yu Qinfang at the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences suggests parents be "more relaxed about peidu issues."

If parents carry this protectiveness too far and always go everywhere with their children, they will not help their children's healthy development and will also impose a heavy burden on their own lives, says Professor Yu.

"It is true that some children improve academically with parents attentive support, but peidu can also exert too much invisible pressure on children, who crave personal space, and it can have the opposite effect and make them hate school."

Accompany abroad

Sixteen-year-old Derek was a star student graduating from a private college prep school in Zhejiang Province. His dream is to attend Oxford University, so last year he went to the UK to study A-level curriculum and prepare for college application in the UK.

His mother Lisa went with him and has been with him for almost a year now. The family rejected the school's residential option in which Derek would have boarded with a few other boys in their own room.

Instead, Lisa, who used to work in her husband's trading company, is now his full-time mother in the UK where she rented an apartment near the school. She helped her son get settled, buying all the furnishings and making his life easier so he can study without any distractions. She cooks Chinese food for him and takes him on field trips and vacations.

She often meets his teachers to discuss his learning curve and ways to improve his test scores. She oversees his homework and private tutoring lessons. She watches over his health. She does everything possible to make him comfortable in a remote and strange environment.

"I'm doing basically what any mother would do for her child, it's not too different from what I did while he was in China," says Lisa.

"I want to support his dream of attending Oxford and believe he must receive an A-level education in the UK to be competitive in applying for it. But he was too young to be living by himself so far away when he was just 15.

"At first, I only intended to go for three months to help him get settled, but it turned out that the curriculum was more difficult than we expected," the mother says, "so I decided to stay longer to help Derek with homework... Moreover, I stay to offer him a comfortable environment so that he doesn't need to worry about anything other than studying for his tests."

Lisa dismisses criticism that too much peidu is not healthy for child or parent.

"I don't expect my son to make a lot of money with his degree, I just want him to learn what he likes and be happy in the prestigious school," says the mother, adding that the family will support his advanced studies.

When Derek turns 18 and enters a UK university as a freshmen, his mother says he will be on his own and she will return to China.

Different twist

Some peidu parents accompany their child-ren to school overseas at an even younger age.

Shao Yijun, grade seven, is studying at Shanghai Xiangming High School. Two years ago, he was living in Sydney, Australia, accompanied by his mother in fifth and sixth grades. His parents decided to send him overseas at an early age in hopes of sparing him the extreme pressures and competition of Chinese grade school education. But more than that, they hoped that exposure at a young age to a different culture and environment would help make him bold, courageous, independent and open minded. They hope to send him overseas again.

"Studying abroad can be psychological therapy, a means to improve the personality and way of thinking," says Cathy Zhu, Shao's mother, who also used the two-year peidu trip to renew her own permanent residence in Australia.

Zhu quit her job as a finance official in a consulting company, but her employer urged her to remain with the company and encouraged her to work from home in Sydney for the company's Asia-Pacific headquarters.

As a peidu mother, she spent most of her time going back and forth between home and school for little Shao.

They lived in Hurstville, a southern suburb of Sydney, with a concentration of Chinese residents. Eight percent of the boy's classmates were Chinese or Australian-born Chinese, so little Shao seldom felt he was away from friends and living in a completely different culture. He didn't experience culture shock.

Teachers always kept parents updated on their children's performance. Zhu loved to talk with teachers about her boy. Since the classes were in English, Shao lagged behind a bit at first. Zhu tutored him at home. After five months, he didn't have much trouble understanding his teachers and Australian friends.

To make sure he didn't fall behind when he returned to China, his mother had brought math textbooks from China and tutored him at home in Sydney.

Zhu didn't care much for outings, but she did take her son to libraries, museums and places that would expand his horizons.

She encouraged Australian classmates to visit their home. "To make it happen, I picked a community with a swimming pool," she says.

Meanwhile, Shao's father was doing peidu long distance.

"I did long-distance teaching via Skype or MSN in Shanghai," says Shao Qi, the father. "I asked him to write blogs to record the small details of daily life. Then I reviewed the blogs and helped him improve writing in Chinese, his mother tongue."

After finishing elementary school in Sydney, Shao is now enrolled in seventh grade in Shanghai and his parents' efforts appear to have paid off. He is in the top 15 in his class in academics.

"It is our plan to send him back to Australia in high school," says his father.

"But none of us will accompany him this time. I think with his former experience at home and abroad, he can overcome any obstacle without our company."


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