Children’s Day was a nice time. We dropped the children off at the kindergarten in the morning and then were told to leave and come back in an hour.
When we arrived later, the children were standing in formation by class for the flag-raising ceremony. All the children in the middle, big and kindergarten classes were wearing the school uniform. All the children, that is, except my child Jie-jie. Fortunately that morning she planned her outfit to be spectacular- a traditional Chinese sheath dress, pink with flowers, blue knee socks, red patent leather Mary Janes and a pink headband that looks like a crown. It was pretty easy to pick her out in the crowd of children wearing yellow polo shirts with the school patch and gray shorts with yellow racing stripes. I figured that there were two possible explanations for her attire: either her parents did not know they were supposed to acquire a uniform and dress her in it or she refused to put her uniform on when they passed them out that morning.
The flag-raising ceremony was very nice – a more formal version of the ceremony they do it Monday morning. There were official University representatives in attendance and the principal addressed the school. Many of Jie-jie’s closest friends had roles in the ceremony and I was a bit sad that we had not pushed Jie-jie to take part when the teacher offered her the chance. But here’s the thing – when the teacher invited her participation we really didn’t know what participation entailed (when, what role, if she would stand alone, what practices were required, etc). If my daughter had been enthusiastic I would have encouraged her but she was set against it and I didn’t know what I would be pushing her into if I had forced her participation.
I did not make the same mistake when Wang Shu Li summoned me to (quickly!) run up to her classroom between the conclusion of the flag-raising and the dance demonstration. I guessed immediately that they were trying to get Jie-jie into that uniform. I walked into the classroom to see my eldest pouting with her arms crossed defiantly across her chest while her teacher offered a Minnie Mouse keychain as a bribe for changing clothes. I acted fast, telling Jie-jie that she needed to wear the uniform (it was like a dance costume), she could change back into her dress afterward, and that it wasn’t a choice. Before she knew what was happening, I had her out of her dress and into her uniform. She began to cry about 不好看 (not good-looking) clothes. Her teacher was visibly distressed by her tears and began to say that she didn’t need to wear the clothes. I disagreed. Jie-jie continued to cry while her friends and teachers crowded around her to tell her how 漂 亮 (pretty) she looked. Even though I have wrestled Jie-jie into new clothes and shoes many times, this time I felt particularly bad because it seemed that the teacher regarded me as a big old meany. When they lined up to head downstairs to dance, however, Jie-jie brightened right up. The dancing was great and Jie-jie (in typical fashion when it comes to new shoes and clothes) determined that she would like to wear her uniform the rest of the morning.
Meanwhile, Mei-mei’s class came outside and stood idly watching the other kids dance. One of the many cultural differences in child rearing is the way that small children are treated. I think encourage their independence more quickly in the U.S. Small children like Mei-mei are supposed to be nurtured and cared for through strict attention to their every need. While they are mostly all 3 years old, the children in her class are carried and fed like babies. The teachers seem surprised when the children show initiative, demonstrate an ability to do things on their own or share complex thought. In Mei-mei’s class, 小小一, the children are always engaged in a structured activity and spend a great deal of time sitting quietly in their seats doing nothing as they wait for whatever comes next. During snacks and meals the teachers often spoon-feed the children.
If I were going to generalize I would say that in China caregivers do not expect children to be willful, but when they are willful the adult stands down. In the US parents seek to raise willful children but expect them to fall in line in the face of reason and legitimate authority. In light of these differences in child-rearing, is it any wonder that in China US parents are stereotyped as callous and uncaring and that Chinese parents are conceived as soft and indulgent?