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The problem of absentee parents

DEBATES on child-rearing and what's best for children are endless, especially in China where everyone seems driven to succeed and see their own children excel.

China's middle class is known, or notorious, for its strict, smothering, "helicopter" parenting, relentlessly pushing children to achieve. The so-called "tiger-mom" school of parenting has received a lot of attention with publication of Amy Chau's book, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother."

But there is some hands-off, relatively "free-range" parenting, often when there's a foreign spouse.

And with infants and young children there's a lot of "absentee" parenting when eager grandparents and ayis take over from busy parents. Grandparents are well-known for their tendency to spoil children and few are up-to-date on modern child-rearing methods.

This hands-off parenting has been compared with the habit of cuckoo birds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which take on the parenting.

There's more hands-off parenting than one might think, primarily because parents are so busy.

A recent survey by the Shanghai Academy of Educational Science shows that 50 to 60 percent of children up to the age of 6 are cared for by their retired grandparents.

The biggest reason is that parents are very busy at work and simply don't have time.

Many of these parents put in a guest appearance at dinner and spend a few hours with their children. In the morning they plant a kiss on the cheek of their sleeping child before they go off to work. Grandparents - or a live-in ayi - do most of the hard work.

Some parents leave their children with grandparents throughout the week and show up on weekends to show their children a good time.

Then there are some parents who do have time but would rather not spend it doing boring things like changing diapers, feeding children and supervising them. Many of these people got married and had children too soon; they were too young to become parents. Though they love their children, they still want their personal freedom and with grandparents around they don't have to give it up.

Another group of hands-off (sort of) parents have made a conscious decision - not to be smothering "helicopter" parents and to rear happy, independent "free-range" children. These parents tend to be mostly well-educated and open-minded, believing that early childhood experience has a powerful influence on development and behavior later in life.

Although Alex Gu, a 31-year-old human resources professional, is adept at dealing with all kinds of interpersonal relationships, looking after his new-born daughter has become a headache.

He and his wife work for a large foreign-funded company; they are very busy and often work overtime. Thus, Gu outsources most regular childcare responsibilities to his parents and his in-laws. They all live together in Gu's three-bedroom apartment.

The four seniors used to disagree over how to take care of the child, how many meals a day were necessary and which brand of milk powder was best.

"Seeing them on the edge of quarrels, I had to make a division of labor among them," Gu says. "Now my parents are in charge of cooking and shopping while my parents-in-law are engaged in feeding, bathing, dressing, and putting the baby to sleep."

When Gu and his wife get home at night, it is already 8pm and almost bedtime. Only on weekends do the parents have time to play with the baby our take her out for fresh air.

"I do feel guilty for taking so much of parents leisure time after their retirement," Gu says. "They deserve a relaxing and pleasurable life. I know that we as parents aren't dedicating enough time to our child, but what can we do?

"We have to work hard to pay our 1 million yuan (US$152,300) mortgage and relieve the economic pressure on the family. I hope one day in the near future we can afford a nanny."

Jenny Cui, a 29-year-old freelance writer, is married to a wealthy businessman who pays a nanny so she has never had to change a diaper for her daughter. The girl is now three years old.

Cui pays a live-in ayi 3,000 yuan a month and a month's bonus at the end of the year. The nanny even accompanies the couple and baby on vacations, even to Sanya, Hainan Island, because Cui is not able to change a diaper.

"I was enjoying the 'world of two' in our early marriage when we could afford to dine out every day, have an exciting night life and enjoy all kinds of new entertainment," Cui says. "My child arrived unexpectedly. I was not prepared to be a mother. I didn't want my life to be filled with child-care trifles."

Too much ayi

But freedom comes at a price. Cui says she feels jealous and frustrated because her daughter is so accustomed to looking to the ayi for comfort - not her mother.

"My daughter now can speak a few words but to my surprise and embarrassment, she speaks with a strong Anhui Province accent," Cui says. "I guess she has spent too much time with the nanny who is from Anhui."

Cui wants to make a change because she doesn't want to be a "meteor mother" (a flash in the sky) or someone who doesn't figure in her daughter's childhood memories. She is considering spending more time at home with her daughter.

Since many Chinese grandparents believe that they have a right to spoil their grandchildren, psychologists and educators say it's better not to let grandparents be the primary caregivers, no matter how busy the parents are.

There are too many children who are spoiled by their grandparents, says psychologist Yang Mu at the Shanghai Renxin Eap and Counseling Center.

"These children are often self-centered, unconcerned about others and have poor team spirit and communication skills," Yang says. "Only a few intellectual grandparents who keep learning and are up-to-date on modern parenting and ideas are qualified for this mission."

Research shows that from birth to age 5 is the best time for parents to establish strong emotional bonds with their children and shape their emotional responses and behavior.

Daily interaction with parents plays an important part in children's emotional and mental development; children may feel hurt and disappointed by their parents who show apparent indifference and lack of time spent together.

"Compared with grandparents, energetic and open-minded parents are more likely to talk with their children in ways that make them laugh and think, more likely to use children's own language and point of view," Yang says. "This builds a child's sense of recognition and self-confidence."

In fact it's difficult for educators to tell what is worse: under-parenting or over-parenting. They suggest parents stay balanced and never go to extremes.

Over-parenting can stifle children and lead to distrust and rebellion. But proper parental guidance is necessary to provide practical guidance and help children develop good habits and attitudes.

According to child education expert Xu Minxia, assistant director of the China Welfare Institute Nursery, many parents are too busy to pick up their children or accompany them to a game room. While grandparents and ayis can help, they are not substitute for parental guidance in a child's daily routines and education.

"We suggest parents spend time every day to accompany their children, play with them, have dinner with them, tell stories, listen to their new experiences and ask questions," Xu says.


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