As our little tushy-face was going to kindergarten, we held a formal family meeting to discuss the matter. The consensus was that she should attend a kindergarten in Xicheng District, where she will also attend primary, middle and high schools in the coming years; but of course, for university, she should go to Haidian District. This opinion was well thought out: we as migrants to Beijing had, with much hard work, created a foothold in the city so that our child could be a Pekingese and a resident of Xicheng District, so of course she would go to school in Xicheng, as the district has such excellent educational resources.
But we had a problem: we live outside the city so it is impractical to drive her tens of kilometers to school in Xicheng. It is equally infeasible to rent an apartment in the district, and it’s too expensive to buy property there – practically nothing is under RMB 5 million. The family were ready to sacrifice everything to make sure that our little tushy-face didn’t lose the race before it even began, and we strategised on how we could purchase property in the school catchment area.
I stopped this crazy line of thought for a few simple reasons: 1. Air quality outside Xicheng is better, and clean air is more important than good teachers; 2. If we had RMB 5 million, wouldn’t it be better if I quit my job and stayed home with her. I don’t believe there exists a better teacher than her dad in this world; 3. I’d rather have my child grow up in the relatively quiet and tranquil suburb than some dilapidated house costing RMB 5 million in downtown Xicheng.
A few days ago, we signed tushy-face up for a private kindergarten outside the city for RMB 48,000 a year. On the day of signing the agreement with the school, the teacher said to us “have you thought it through? There is a higher likelihood of your child being hurt here than anywhere else!” I asked “why?” The teacher said “we don’t intervene in conflicts between kids right away. We leave it to them to resolve their issues. We, teachers, only get involved when they fail to do so”. I said “Okay”.
The teacher then went on to say “your child is not going to learn as much here as elsewhere”. I asked “why?” The teacher said “we don’t ask them to memorise poems or teach them much maths. Instead, we help them build their character and learn hands-on skills”. I said “great, that’s just what I want – a kindergarten that cultivates children’s personalities rather than giving them the same kind of education that I struggled through as a child, the kind that focused on exams and squashed my dreams”.
For years, the extra cost for attending a kindergarten outside your catchment and property price in desirable areas have both been skyrocketing. Properties in Xicheng’s catchment areas are said to have exceeded RMB 200,000/ m2. Parents say you can’t go to a good primary school if you didn’t go to a good kindergarten and a good secondary school is out of the question if you didn’t attend a good primary school, and then that means not going to a good university. By that logic, they muster all they have to ensure that their children don’t lose the race before it begins.
But this whole business of not losing the race before it starts is nothing but a myth. Beyond a mere matter of winning or losing, education is also about teaching right from wrong, kindness from cruelty, and good from evil. Parents incorrectly project values from the adult world on children by boiling education down to a race to win or lose. The adult world today is one of cruel competition where only the strongest survive – predatory corporate values are becoming increasingly prevalent and people are more concerned with coming out of the competition on top rather than their moral compass. As a result, our society is filled with malice and is without compassion. We are busy trumping one another and flaunting our success, wholly lacking grace, self-confidence and mutual appreciation. A nation, no matter how strong, is uncivilised and barbaric if it doesn’t know right from wrong.
Some say life is like a race. I agree, but to me it’s not one that Liu Xiang, the 110 metre hurdler, would stand on the starting line for – a sprint, a race of speed where, as long as all the other 7 sprinters fall, 12 minutes is still a winning time. This race, as I understand it, is against only one opponent, time itself – how much happiness and meaning can I derive from my life, which is finite? As to what becomes of someone else, that is their journey and hasn’t much to do with me.
Having the importance of competition overemphasised to them by their parents, children would perceive their friends with exclusion and hostility, and be under increasing pressure to perform academically, and they are therefore deprived of their innocence and joy. Taking a step back and supposing, as you would, that life is a race against someone else, it should then be a marathon, not a 100 metre dash. Have you ever seen a marathon runner start a race bolting? In this life-long marathon, opportunities will arise for you to excel so long as you have a positive outlook and complete personhood, so overstretching a child is not necessary. Didn’t I turn out okay despite the fact that I went to primary school at the late age of seven and lagged behind many of my peers after graduating from university at 24?
What our children need is a more complete sense of self, a more comprehensive system to assess them, sunshine and grass of the outdoors, and fairytales, not million-dollar catchment area properties. Your children’s happiness is dependent on whether or not they are healthy and kind, and love learning, not whether they win or lose at the starting line, or how many of their peers they can trip up.