Written by Zhang Qiang / China Zigen Rural Sustainable Development Education Center Specialist
There is a group of people who left their hometowns and their children for better employment opportunities and income. Although their hard-earned family incomes have contributed to economic growth and social stability, the children who stay behind have very little time to be with their parents. The children of these people are called the “left-behind children”, and people often see, hear, and come into contact with these children.
Per a 2013 report by the All China Women‘s Federation, there were over 61 millions of left-behind children under the age of 17 in China. Of these children, 57.2% had one parent leave home and 42.8% had both parents leave home. 79.7% of children left-behind were raised by grandparents, 13% were entrusted to relatives or friends, and 7.3% had unspecified guardians or no guardians. Research indicated that 43.8% of left-behind children had little or no emotional interaction with their guardians, 37% expressed that they often do not want to talk to anyone, and 30% often felt lonely.
A China Agricultural University research group spent more than two years on the “Left-Behind Children in Rural China Study.” They distributed questionnaires and interviewed people in ten villages in Anhui, Henan, Hunan, Jiangxi and Sichuan (five major labor-exporting provinces) and concluded that the major mental issues of left-behind children are: increasing inferiority complexes; melancholy personalities; and inclinations to isolation and introversion. Some of these children have developed hatred and abnormal hostile attitudes and some even have violent tendencies. In general, the major psychological problems are isolation, fragility, and a longing for parental love.
Of course, not all children left-behind are problem children. However, left-behind children who are at critical stages of growth and development have encountered more risks in upbringing, education, physical development and mental health compared to their peers who consistently have parents at home. Some infamous examples that happened to left-behind girls include: daily aggression, bullying, violence, sexual assault, disease and early pregnancy.
We have confirmed these results of similar surveys with our project schools. It is clear we need to develop solutions for left-behind children that target their education, social adaptation and other needs.
1. The challenges of raising left-behind children
When parents and children are separated, children have to accept the transfer of guardians. Most of these children have “grand-parenting education” at home with their grandparents. During project visits, some teachers reflected:
“Study well, learn how to read and write, and do not fight at school (are the basic requests made by grandparents). But the elder generation are illiterate, they do not know how to teach kids. The older generation and the grandchildren act independently, and the same routine repeated everyday. As grandchildren become older, they would simply say ‘Do not manage me’.”
“Grandparents also have to work, they usually discipline kids with scolding. Grandparents do not treat children harshly but do carry an ancestral form of parenting inertia. When sixty or seventy-year-old grandparents are responsible for teenagers, the best they can do is check if homework is done. It is beyond grandparents’ capacity to manage other activities. As for grandchildren, they do not respect their grandparents.”
Grand-parenting education encountered all sorts of difficulties especially when grandparents are older, with low education level and narrow-mindedness, and respond to mistakes with negative rebukes instead of encouragements.
A teacher from Zigen’s Shanxi partner school mentioned an impressive example: “It is rare to see Nana (anonymous.) smile. Her character is particularly weak, and she seems to feel inferior to others. She never takes the initiative to answer questions in class or communicate with her classmates. I think her childhood is not happy at all!”
At a Zigen’s Hebei project school, we found a little boy hiding in the corner crying, wearing dirty clothes with holes. We learned that his name was Xiao Qiang (anonym), a fifth grader who had just fought with classmates. He was usually beaten by others.
Through the school principal, we learned that Xiao Qiang’s mother was a mail-order bride from Yunnan. Due to an unbearable living environment, she left home alone when Xiao Qiang was less than five years old and there has been no news about her since. Xiao Qiang’s father has been gone working since he was born and he was left to be raised by his uncle and aunt. Xiao Qiang’s father does not send money home and he has had no money on his meal card for several months.
The class teacher said that if the school contacted Xiao Qiang’s aunt because he had a fight at school or his scores dropped, his aunt does not respond and has said “His father doesn’t care. What can we do?” When relatives do not fulfill their educational responsibilities, the problem was transferred to the school.
In school life, Xiao Qiang posed a big headache for the teachers. Although he usually was “quiet and says nothing”, he was also very sensitive. If he has a disagreement or unpleasant interaction with his classmates, he would run out crying. Gradually, he was isolated by other students. If he accidentally touched his classmate’s arm, other kids may say that he “has no mother” or worse. Although the teachers in the school slowly approached him with love and patience, his long-term fear, emotional closure and withdrawal inhibited smooth communication. This has also become a thorny issue for teachers in counseling left-behind children.
Both nurturing and education are faced with difficulties while the left-behind children cannot have their basic physiological and safety needs met, and do not receive love and respect. The true guardians cannot be relaxed for a moment.
2. The lack of parent-child companionship and the unusual relationship between husband and wife bring challenges to children’s future social adaptation
There is a worrisome phenomenon among parents of the left-behind children: many cannot resist the temptation of consumerism-influenced recreational activities. Because of the economic pressure, contradictions in life, and long-distance relationships, spouses keenly thirst for emotional relationships. This can lead to marriages becoming unstable, and divorces have become more common. According to the teachers, there are a large number of such factors which make them feel helpless when communicating with children.
“Zhao Zhao’s (anonym) father has worked outside for many years and was divorced two years ago. His grandma and grandfather reluctantly take care of him. His father now has a new family and his mother only calls home occasionally. Sometimes she does not call at all.”
“Xiao Bai’s (anonym) stepmother is from another town, and she married his father while working with him. She has no emotional attachment to Xiao Bai. The stepmother has not ended her previous marriage and it is said that she has a boy of her own.”
“Jing-Jing’s (anonym) parents divorced when she was very young. Her mother left and her father rarely comes back from work. Her grandfather fell while picking plants and is now paralyzed.”
Family is the basic social unit formed by blood relationships. It is also the main living space in a person’s life. It is the environment in which children grow in their early life. The family structure, the quality of the relationship between spouses, and parent-child relationships can deeply affect children. If the relational structure is incomplete or quality of the relationship is low, it may hinder a child’s healthy growth. As there is no long-term presence, parents and children rely on limited phone or video calls for communication. These measures are not timely nor focused on effective parent-child communication, and participants often cannot reach mutual understanding.
When growing children are eager for family warmth and nourishment but fail to receive it, the children can grow indifferent or develop hostile emotions towards family or relatives. These kinds of emotions can directly impact their relationships with others and inhibit establishment of solid social relationships. Sometimes these even lead to a distorted understanding of society and produces anti-social behavior.
3. Many groups are trying to solve the left-behind children problems
In recent years, increasing numbers of government agencies (from central to local), research institutes, non-profit organizations and individuals have begun to pay attention to the problems of left-behind children. These entities have actively offered advice and suggestions to implement protections for these children. Multiple forms of media (news, music, documentaries, films and television programs) are also giving attention by broadcasting the situation of left-behind children to the general public and jointly improving the living conditions of left-behind children.
Professor Ye Jingzhong of College of Humanities and Development at China Agricultural University has specialized in research on left-behind population in rural regions, rural social issues and rural education and believes that there are only two ways to solve the problem. One is to allow the left-behind children follow their parents when they go to work in urban areas. The other is to have the migrant workers find local employment, so that they do not have to leave their children.
In 2016, the State Council released the Proposals on Strengthening Caring and Protection for Left-Behind Children in Rural Regions, proposing to set up and perfect a care service system for left-behind children in rural areas focused on five dimensions: family custody, government responsibilities, education system, clubs and organizations, and financial investment. The goal is to change the helpless reality that “children cannot enter the city and their parents cannot return to the countryside” and achieve the goal of “significantly reduced phenomenon of left-behind children by 2020”.
In the past, attention was focused more on left-behind children and their families and less on the guardians of left-behind children, parents, teachers and other support structures. Education for Sustainable Development must not neglect this point. A full understanding of the situation and difficulties of the people who work with the direct care and education of left-behind children is fundamental to the solutions to the issue of left-behind children and is especially meaningful to the social support system and education. When examining the problem, we must go beyond emotions and conduct a rational analysis. Zigen plans to conduct a large-scale investigation and study, urging all community members to propose constructive suggestions and solutions.
There are many contributing causes to the problems of left-behind children: we cannot simply blame parents and families. There are also public policy and institutional causes, such as household registration, education, medical insurance, laws and regulations, etc., as well as many underlying economic and social reasons. Those are not easy to effectively and comprehensively solve in the short term. However, any sincere attention and help are meaningful to each individual left-behind child, their families and their supporters. It is also urgent to have comprehensive and effective research, suggestions, and actions to left-behind children groups and related persons; this has positive effects on solving the problem in essence.
Translated by Betty Chui，Zigen volunteer in Texas.
Edited by Solo Tung, graduated in Economics from New York University and resides in Bayside, NY. He has participated in Zigen’s work starting over 20 years ago, and has worked as a professional Chinese-English translator and proofreader for various clients, including for Zigen.