In China, thousands of parents are sending children as young as three to boarding school. The answer to, “Why do they do it?” is an important question because family ties are exceedingly important in China.
In Shanghai, many parents send their three and four-year-olds to boarding kindergarten. From Monday morning to Friday afternoon, kids play, learn, eat and sleep in their brightly colored classroom and its attached dormitory, only going home at weekends, writes Madeleine Morris of BBC News.
There are also boarding kindergartens in Beijing and other major Chinese cities. While no official figures are available, it’s estimated that the number of boarding toddlers runs into thousands nationwide. In traditional Chinese culture, family is prized above all else – so how can the phenomenon of the boarding toddler be explained?
There are a few reasons, said Xu Jing, executive principal of the Kangqiao kindergarten affiliated to the China Welfare Institute (CWI) in Shanghai. “Some think it’s good for the children because it helps promote independence. Other parents don’t have time or energy to look after their kids,” Xu said.
“Also, in traditional Chinese culture many grandparents live with the family, and [because of China's one child policy] sometimes there are four grandparents, two parents and just one child in a home. “Some parents worry that the grandparents will spoil the child, so they send them here.”
In China, boarding kindergartens were established in 1949 to look after war orphans of the civil war, as well as the children of new Communist Party leaders who suddenly found themselves too busy for childcare. In the 1990s, sending a young child to such schools was a fashionable status symbol.
Recently, the boarding kindergartens have become less popular. Some boarding kindergartens, both private and state-run, are closing, while others are switching from boarding classes to day care.
In Shanghai, the CWI kindergarten used to be exclusively boarding, but now only three out of 22 classes for young children are residential.
“Chinese parents are now starting to realize that it’s important to spend more time with their kids when they are very young, because they are learning and it’s a very important stage of growth,” Xu Jing said.
“We also advise parents that if they have the time and ability to be with their children, day care is a better option.”
Psychologist Han Mei Ling is against the boarding kindergartens and has treated a number of adults and teenagers scarred by the experience.
“They feel abandoned and irrelevant. They struggle to find their place in life, and they don’t know how to behave in their own family,” she says. “It achieves independence only in parents’ minds – it is brutal.”
According to Han, a culture where family pride depends overwhelmingly on a child’s success or failure is the reason some parents still send their children to kindergartens.
Some parents see the experience of boarding as a way for a toddler to get ahead. From boarding kindergarten, students are likely to go on to a boarding school and then, the hope is, they will win a place at a good university.