Monday, August 18, 2008

The stressful life of China's only children

How to have a nation of burnouts before they turn 20.

Psychology Today: Plight of the Little Emperors
When Dawei Liu was growing up in the coastal city of Tai'an during the 1990s, all of his classmates—95 percent of whom were only children—received plenty of doting parental support. One student, however, truly stood out from the rest. Every day, this boy went from class to class with an entourage of one: his mother, who had given up the income of her day job to monitor his studies full-time, sitting beside him constantly in order to ensure perfect attention. "The teacher was OK with it," Liu shrugs. "He might not focus as much on class if his parent wasn't there."

Across China, stories of parents going to incredible lengths to give their only children a competitive edge have become commonplace. Throughout Jing Zhang's youth in Beijing, her parents took her to weekly resumé-boosting painting classes, waiting outside the school building for two hours each time, even in winter. Yanming Lin enjoyed perfect silence in her family's one-room Shanghai apartment throughout her five-plus hours of nightly homework; besides nixing the television, her mother kept perpetual watch over her to make sure she stayed on task. "By high school, my parents knew I could control myself and only do homework," Lin says. "Because I knew the situation."

The situation for urban young people in today's China, from preschoolers on up, is this: Your entire future hinges on one test, the national college entrance exam—China's magnified version of the SAT. The Chinese call it gao kao, or "tall test," because it looms so large. If students do well, they win spots at China's top universities and an easy route to a middle-class lifestyle. If not, they must confront the kind of tough, blue-collar lives their parents faced. With such high stakes, families dedicate themselves to their child's test prep virtually from infancy. "Many people come home to have dinner and then study until bed," says Liu. "You have to do it to go to the best university and get a good job. You must do this to live."

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