Suzhi Kids

An inside look at the new generation of children and parents in China

By Shirin Pakfar and Yubei Gong

With China’s rapid modernization, middle-class parents are caught between new and traditional ways of parenting. The truism over the past few decades that Chinese children don’t play or have fun is now challenged by the government’s promotion of suzhi, which is best translated as “comprehensive development.”

In a recent study on education and play among China’s emerging middle class, we were given a stern warning: “Chinese children don’t play.” As we continued framing and developing the project, we were faced with mounds of data that supported this claim. Academic papers, books, newspaper articles, and business case studies all portrayed Chinese children as stuck in a brutally overpowering education system that is, focused on math and science and, leaves little time for anything but studying — similar to South Korea’s focus on exams, which has powered that country’s economic miracle. And because academic achievement reflects successful parenting, Chinese parents were portrayed as strict gatekeepers (and tiger mothers) allowing children to engage only in activities that would advance their academic ambitions. Nothing is fun until you are good at it.

To dig deeper into these claims, we embarked on a 45-day ethnographic journey, across Tier 1-3 cities, studying the entire ecology of Chinese children, parents, friends, relatives, neighbors, teachers, and classmates. We spent three full days shadowing and engaging each child, observing him or her at home and in school.

What became clear to us, particularly as we spent more time in Chinese schools, is that there is much more to the culture of education and play among Chinese children than the data at first suggested. Given that China continues to receive the top academic ranking in PISA’s global study, we were prepared for the level of academic rigor we saw. But it wasn’t the seriousness of the curriculum or the hours of homework that struck us. It was the modernity of the school system, from preschool to middle school, where teachers were instructed by the central government to ensure that teaching in every subject promotes ”comprehensive development,” or suzhi.

For most teachers, this meant that the focus was less on exam scores and more on the ability of the children to think critically, solve problems, work in teams, and take leadership roles. The situation is changing from a narrow emphasis on instruction to a broader engagement with the interests and developmental needs of children. Though this has become a core element of the education system in recent years, teachers were not given any tools or training to make it a reality. Ji Shang, a fifth-grade teacher from Ningbo, summarized it well: “We all recognize the importance of ensuring the children are well-rounded and able to excel in the competitive society that awaits them in the future, but we cannot do so without the help of parents and the entire education system.”

Focus on suzhi among the next generation of children

The Concept og Suzhi

  • Stresses students’ all-around development
  • Highlights the cultivation of moral integrity and independent thinking
  • Emphasizes the development of mental creativity and hands-on skillss

In Practice

  • Suzhi has become a widespread discourse in Chinese society
  • It goes beyond education and is rooted in every corner of the culture (e.g., phrases like Citizen Suzhi, Professional Suzhi, and Individual Suzhi are prevalent in Chinese life)

Source: ReD Associates

  • China calls for “Human-Centered” Growth
  • China’s twelfth five-year plan calls for distributed growth for the entire nation and outlines for a desire to become a nation of innovation and sustained wealth: from “Made in China” to “Invented in China.”
  • A key component of the strategy for realizing these goals is reform and modernization of the educational system
  • The government plans to increase its spending on education to 4 percent of the country’s GDP in 2012 (Source: China National Statistical Bureau)

As we talked more with parents, relatives, and neighbors of our focus children, we realized that the concept of suzhi has become widespread in Chinese society, extending far beyond the educational context. It was a widely held belief that to be successful in today’s society, children need more than academics. But as with teachers, parents and grandparents lacked the tools to ensure this comprehensive development and often turned to after-school activities — sports, language, arts and crafts, and Chinese calligraphy — to develop their child’s suzhi. Nao Mong, a preschool teacher from Zhenjiang, felt that ”“increasing” a child’s suzhi was something that had to be ingrained culturally from birth.

“All parents come to me and ask how they can raise their child’s suzhi. They try extra classes and place a lot of pressure on the child. This can help but must be accompanied by a cultural attitude in the home that teaches caring, respect, and humility.”

One common perspective among respondents is the idea that hands-on activities stimulate brain activity in ways that can’t be achieved otherwise. As a result, most parents and grandparents accepted activities — like playing video games or building with construction toys — that allowed children to have fun while also serving a purpose. “I allow my son to play an hour of games on the computer every day because he can focus, he uses his hands, and he can increase his hand-eye coordination. This all stimulates the brain”, said one mother.The new focus on suzhi and a recognition that academics alone cannot guarantee a child’s success have led parents and grandparents to discover the value of play as an activity that brings the family together and allows children to develop social and critical-thinking skills while using their hands.

But this is a challenge for many, because the concept of play is new to the emerging middle class. Most grandparents — the primary caretakers of the children we met — were born around the time of the Cultural Revolution and mainly worked on the land where they were raised. Chang Ming’s grandmother described her relationship with her parents as  “Very formal. We didn’t speak much. We never played games as a family. In fact, we never played at all. There were no toys in China back then. And the words creativity and imagination were never used.” Thinking back to 35 years ago, when she had her own children, Long Wei’s grandmother recalls, “There really weren’t any toys in China when I had my children. If they wanted to play, they made games using stones or sticks.” Most parents we met who were born in the 1970s didn’t have toys, either, and while most of them went to school as children, none had any memory of playing with their parents.*

Given the rapid modernization of China in the past generation, we found middle-class parents caught between new and traditional and new ways of parenting. A traditional focus on academic achievement through study is easier for parents to relate to, while the increasing importance of suzhi as a necessity for life success pulls parents into unknown territory. The lack of a tradition of play causes some parents to doubt its value. At the same time, as middle-class parents themselves learn to play, they are drawn to the fact that play can be purposeful and fun while at the same time bringing the family together. The widespread discourse of suzhi beyond an educational context is building new cultures around play, child development, and family roles.

The new play cultures and consumer behaviors create an opportunity for companies in the education and toy industries. Parents seek guidance on how to play with their kids and are willing to invest in products and services that can help them. Like many middle-class parents in the West, they read parenting magazines and ask teachers and neighbors for advice on the best toys and play methods. Given the relatively recent cultural change around play, doting grandparents eager to please their one grandchild and middle-class parents with rising incomes are buying toys on a weekly or monthly basis. Novice parents and grandparents look to their children for guidance on what to buy that will both improve the child’s suzhi and impart a sense of fun.

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