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Family education calls for more social support

Author  :  NIU NANSEN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-09-15

The Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, which was held in October 2019, proposed building a service system covering both urban and rural areas to guide family education. In response, many places across China launched programs such as “parents’ school,” “parents’ class,” and “family education instructor training,” with the aim of altering and refreshing parents’ educational philosophy and unleashing the endogenous power of family education.

To realize this aim, however, it is not simply a matter of a cognitive shift. More institutional support is needed because many problems in family education are universal and too difficult for individual parents and families to solve.

Problems in family education

The first problem in family education is that the penetration of various educational theories has bewildered Chinese parents a great deal. Young parents in contemporary China mostly grew up under the traditional view that “sparing the rod is spoiling the child.” After they became parents, they have been exposed to diverse Western educational philosophies, such as “happy education,” “interest is the best teacher,” and “child is the center,” which are against Chinese tradition.

If a child misbehaves, should the rod be spared? Should we try to offer children a carefree childhood or help them lay the foundation for future competition? These questions initially had fixed answers in traditional China or Western countries, but contemporary Chinese parents are now bothered by many options. This contradictory psychology has made them irresolute and wavering in what they should say and do in educational practices, causing confusion regarding their approach to education.

Second, new features in family forms are weakening families’ educational function. Some surveys show that compared with the year 2000, the migration rate of rural family members went up by approximately 10 percentage points in 2010. The long-term absence of family members increased the proportion of incomplete families, reducing mutual help and cooperation between members within a family.

At the same time, restricted by the household registration, education, and social security systems, many migrants choose to leave their minor children behind in the care of grandparents, so that a large number of minors are living in a generation-skipping family during their infancy, childhood, and compulsory education periods. Consequently, parents are absent from the critical stages of their children’s growth.

Modern education requires more cooperativeness, more thoughtful care, and more professional cultivation, but incomplete and generation-skipping families are at a disadvantage in this regard. Studies show that students brought up by grandparents have more difficulties in learning. About 15.1% of the surveyed students from generation-skipping families were found to have mental and behavioral problems, significantly higher than the rate of 4.7% among students raised by their own parents. Moreover, the psychological problems of students from generation-skipping families were more severe than those growing up in parental care.

Third, the work-family conflict is affecting families’ non-material educational investments, or time and energy devoted to children’s education. The work-family conflict refers to a conflict of roles when pressures from both work and family are too huge to reconcile, which is primarily manifested in the difficulty of fulfilling family responsibilities due to obligations from work.

While the universal adoption of the internet has facilitated communication, it has also blurred the line between work and life. People are tied up with work on mobile phones all the time. As a consequence, they might be absent-minded when keeping their children company or educating them.

On a deeper level, the work-family conflict, as a source of stress, will cause many physical and mental problems to workers with children, such as low efficiency, slackness at work, frustration, and a worsening mental state. The conflict and pressures are particularly prominent to working mothers, who face a motherhood penalty. As the work pace quickens and the competition for jobs intensifies, the work-family conflict will escalate, plaguing all laborers with children, regardless of their gender.

Fourth, stranger-dominated communities are dissipating the educational atmosphere for families. Urbanization has accelerated population flow, and most urban communities are filled with strangers. Regrettably, current urban community construction largely rests on affair management, and has not touched upon customs and education yet. Neighbors are not incorporated in the social network of community residents, lacking emotional connections, interest relations, and a foundation of trust.

Consequently, families exist in communities like atoms. Despite more independence and autonomy, they have to shoulder the responsibility of family education and cope with related difficulties all alone. Family education, in the final analysis, is about the education of personality, which especially necessities a good social atmosphere, because healthy characters are usually cultivated in communities and society. However, communities of strangers cannot form a microscopic field for moral opinion, let alone provide an educational atmosphere for families.


The above-mentioned family education problems as a result of social transformation are beyond the capacity of individual parents or families and call for more social support and services.

First it is necessary to build a Chinese family education theory system based on the actual conditions of Chinese families and family education in the nation. Some scholars have divided the academic discourse of disciplines into three circles. The nuclear circle includes basic concepts and theories which are universally applicable and most stable. In the second circle are studies and outcomes on specific social phenomena and issues in light of basic theories and classical arguments. The outermost circle encompasses the abstraction of experience along with countermeasures and suggestions. From the outermost to the innermost, abstractness decreases while practicality and variability increase.

According to this analytical framework, family education studies in China mainly fall into the second and outermost circles and are in the stage of applied and empirical research. Further analysis reveals that the focus of most family education studies in China is “borrowed,” as many keywords, subjects, and even methodologies are modeled after corresponding Western studies.

The status quo has failed to foster most stable basic theories concerning family education, all the while unique Chinese facts are ignored. In fact, traditional Chinese thought and cases on family education from ancient China, changes in family forms, social transformation, and modernization in contemporary times, and the interplay between the two eras, have all objectively given rise to lots of facts and problems on family education that are different from the West.

Therefore, when drawing upon foreign research outcomes, Chinese scholars of education science should be more committed to discovering and systemizing Chinese family education facts, examining related issues with logic, and extracting concepts and propositions to build a Chinese family education theory system, thereby updating knowledge in the nuclear circle of family education studies. In doing so, Chinese parents will have well-suited theories as the underlying logic to guide their family education practices, thus clearing their confusion and enhancing their competence in this respect.

Efforts are also needed to create an institutional environment in which families, the nation, and society raise children jointly. In the face of irreversible changes to family forms and structures, alongside increasingly serious work-family conflict, the nation and society should step in and share the burden of family education.

First, support policies can be rolled out to benefit parents, including maternity insurance, family education allowance, parents’ break, and flexible work hours, in order to recognize and even reward parents’ devotion to family education. The broader aims are to disseminate the important value and meaning of family education throughout society and carry forward distinctive Chinese family culture.

Attention should be paid to exploring the mechanism of “joint nurturers” to encourage schools, volunteers, organizations, nurseries and kindergartens, libraries, museums, and the like to care for children and teenagers and act as assistant nurturers for incomplete and generation-skipping families.

Moreover, it is key to guide and support market behaviors and social organizations that are conducive to solving real family problems, so as to help families develop healthily and build a good foundation for family education.

Last but not least, home-like communities should be built to make childrearing a public undertaking. Families are basic units of a community. They share not only the same area, but also a sense of belonging. Communities should be homes with educational, affective, and functional support, like traditional Chinese neighborhoods and villages where all residents form a social support network featuring mutual help and care through direct and continuous contact, rearing “our children” together. Hence tackling the childrearing issue, the biggest concern of families, may be a crucial point of departure for community construction.

Administrators should proceed with community construction from the perspective of the “home,” organize public welfare activities to trumpet fine customs and facilitate family construction, and establish a morality appraisal system to provide a good educational environment for children’s growth.

In this process, communities can extend family relations to neighborhoods by designing public spaces, public interaction, and public utilities, to bring a modern “big family” into being and create such roles as “story-telling grandma,” “football-playing uncle,” and “gardening grandpa” who can lead children to participate in group activities, so that childrearing becomes a public cause; particularly, a cause of communities.


Niu Nansen is from the Basic Education Research Center at the National Institute of Education Science.

Editor: Yu Hui

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