Since we arrived in September, I’ve been searching for things to do with my kids. Now that I have the opportunity to be at home with them full time, I was looking for all of those fun things stay-at-home moms get to do – swim lessons and music class, arts and crafts and story time at the library. You know, the really put together moms on the go, with her clean and smiling children, laughing as they walk to yet another fun activity sipping their coffee and juices out of their recyclable thermoses. That was going to be me.
Forget the fact that I can’t seem to put on anything but tattered jeans, threadbare t-shirts and old sneakers. And that once I tried to put on make up before realizing in the elevator I only did one eye. And I rarely choose to fight the “let me please wash your face before we go” fight. The real reason I can’t be that stylish mom on the go is that there are very few activities happening for the 2-4 year old set in Shanghai.
“That can’t be! You must not be looking in the right places!”
I know, I thought this way too but it’s true. You see, all of the two year olds are in school.
That’s right, school. Full time (in most cases). Classes. IEPs (for those not in the education biz, Individualized Education Plan). Wait lists to get in. The real deal. Two year olds.
I think we’ve actually done a pretty good job seeking out the few things that are available but inevitably we get this familiar line of questions: how old is he? How long have you been in Shanghai? Is he going to go to school? I even get these questions from grocery store employees and the guards downstairs.
So we have gone to see a few schools and they are impressive. Detailed schedules of each 20 minute classes which, research shows, is the exact appropriate class time for Hunter’s age group. Most of them provide a “healthy snack” and plenty of opportunity for “play” (which research also confirms is important, in case you weren’t sure). They will ensure that each student is learning colors and alphabet and Chinese and English and numbers and quantum physics. The really exclusive places have wait lists.
For a few weeks, I was wracked with the guilt that my son would be playing catch up with all the other little Einstein’s because he started school at age 3 instead of age 2. But the longer we are here, the more I am learning about Chinese beliefs on education and the guilt is lifting. Would he enjoy the playing with a large group of kids his age? Maybe. But maybe not. Would he be learning more with a teacher teaching he and 10 other kids than with me? Maybe. But maybe not. Will he grow up to be a punk because he didn’t go to school until he was three? No. (If he grows up to be a punk it will surely be because he has met some awful punk kids in school.)
We walked to our Thursday morning “music and movement” class last week with a new friend. She is Chinese with a Swedish husband and a one year old daughter. She was asking whether we had toured any of the pre-schools and said she is starting to get nervous about where to send her daughter. She’d like to have her start at 18 months. She then qualified this statement by saying her mother would like her granddaughter to become a student at 18 months. She went on to say that her parents, and most Chinese parents, put a huge amount of pressure on their children to get their grandchildren enrolled in the “best” preschools. If you don’t get into a good pre-school, then you won’t get into a good kindergarten, then you won’t get into a good primary school, then your doomed for high school and forget about university. Your kids will be homeless, toothless and begging for money outside McDonald’s. I felt bad for my new friend. She clearly didn’t want to send her daughter. She kept saying, “but she’s still a baby. She doesn’t need to be at school from 8-4.” Then she told us about “boarding schools” for toddlers (mostly in more rural areas for parents who are desperate to give their kids a better life then they had) and we all started to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude (or maybe just me).
Friday morning, we went to our art class. There are usually 4 or 5 kids there but this week it was just us. The teacher told us they were thinking of canceling because of lack of interest. And then the questions began about why he’s not in school and that most of the toddlers are in school so it’s not really worth it for them to hold the class. I guess what bothers me about the questions is that there is an undertone of judgement (or maybe I’m projecting but this just feeds into the doubt that I am doing what is best for my son).
Anyway, we’ve been to this art class about 5 times and what really strikes me about it is the way the teacher presents each project. One week, they were making mosaic posters. There were cut out pieces of foam in all different shapes and colors. The blues in one bag, reds in another, greens in another and so on. But when Hunter went to glue a blue piece next to a green piece, the teacher corrected him. “No, no, they should be all blue.” Isn’t this a creative endeavor? Isn’t he 2? Can’t he just glue whatever he wants, where ever he wants? The teacher has tried to correct him now several times and it takes everything in me not to say, “back off, lady. If he wants to put flowers on his pizza, then he’ll put flowers on his pizza and we’ll call it art.” But I’m not sure this type of “thinking outside the box” is encouraged in China. But I’ve only lived here for a few months and my kids don’t go to school here so what do I know?
Yesterday we had someone come in to test our air and water quality in the apartment given all the pollution outside and stories I’ve heard of high levels of lead and formaldehyde in Chinese apartments. The guy who came was young and from California but he parents are Chinese. He was very nice to Hunter and after asking him how old he was, looked at me. “Is he going to school?” I tried not to sound defensive and explained that we were starting to look. He sounded just like my new Chinese friend saying that the “Chinese are hard core about their education.”
All of my impressions are anecdotal. I don’t truly know what it’s like to be in a Chinese school or to receive a Chinese education. I don’t know if pre-schools are really as rigid as I am painting them to be. But I do know, just based on where they were born, my kids are much better off then millions of other kids born elsewhere and I am lucky. I am lucky the guilt I am struggling with is possibly spending too much time with my kids and worrying about whether they will start a lifetime of good schooling at 2 or 3.
I am an educator. I value education. I understand its importance to society. But I just wonder…There is all this pressure to compare our (all) kids to other kids using test scores and essays and community service for the sake of appearing more well rounded then the next kid. But we live in a global economy now and a shrinking world. What if we (the US, China, Europe, all of us) took a less competitive approach to education and viewed it more as “what’s best for the greater good” approach? I know, I’m getting real “hippie dippy” here but in light of all the cheating scandals and indecency and unjustness in the world, what is all this pressure and competition teaching kids? What if we started view education as a global endeavor? Do we have to compare US education to China or Finland or my kid to your kid. Can’t we all agree that more education is better for everyone? Like, everyone in the world? What if we stopped trying to get the best test scores and instead tried to share the burden of educating kids with our “competitors.” I know, I’m ignoring the Hobbesian truths of competition and human nature, so I’ll wrap it up here.
My kid may start school this Spring or maybe September. Either way, I hope to raise a good, decent, honest boy who will know the value of a good education not just to “get ahead” but to have the ability to leave the world a better place then when he arrived. And I’ll hope, that is the goal of most parents in every corner of the world.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sing Kumbaya and hug a tree. Peace and love, worldwide flower children.