Government and governance, Social policy, Education, Arts, culture & society | Asia, East Asia, The World

9 June 2020

China’s central government must do more to protect the wellbeing of millions of rural children left behind by their parents who migrate to cities for work, Jason Hung writes.

In China, millions of children in rural areas are being left behind by their parents seeking work in urban areas. These ‘left-behind children’ are defined as rural children under the age of 18 whose parents migrate to a different location for work for more than six months.

There are an estimated 61.03 million left-behind children in China – or approximately 38 per cent of all rural children. Despite China’s Prevention Law prohibiting parents and guardians from leaving children under the age of 16 alone, over two million of these children are.

These left-behind children are particularly educationally disadvantaged. Junior high school dropout rates among rural Chinese children as a whole are only between 4.2 and 8.7 per cent. By comparison, left-behind children have a dropout rate of some 20 per cent.

To compensate for the parent-child separation, many parents of left-behind children try to maintain connections with their children through various communication media and by sending them remittances. However, migrant parents sometimes fail to satisfy their children’s psychosocial and emotional needs.

Due to the lack of positive parenting, left-behind children with poor educational attainment face limited and less desirable career choices, often leading to occupational immobility. Poor school engagement and occupational immobility adversely influence their psychosocial wellbeing, fostering the development of low self-efficacy and social strain.

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Ming Wen and Danhua Lin found that left-behind cohorts may be subject to the lack of parental involvement in child development more than migrant children, resulting in reduced family control and supervision, weakened parental support and guidance, and poor parent-child bonding.

Insufficient parental engagement can result in children’s poor development of mentalisation skills, causing emotional and behavioural problems and interpersonal difficulties.

In part due to the lack of parental support and guidance, left-behind children are less motivated to study after school and are more likely to develop psychosocial problems.

Poor academic outcomes would reduce left-behind communities’ agricultural production, as well as discouraging an increase and diversification of their non-agrarian labour market opportunities. Left-behind children’s unsatisfactory academic and career development can lead to, for example, reduced life satisfaction.

It is therefore crucial for China’s central government to enforce legislation which requires rural parents or guardians to take care of the left-behind children, at least until the age of 16. Local governments should then assign police officers to oversee each registered household unit regularly to check if rural children are left alone.

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If left alone, rural parents or guardians should be contacted and informed their responsibilities to cohabit with children. If rural parents or guardians continue to neglect their obligations of child-care support, local authorities should deprive their rural social welfare in phases.

Additionally, a survey conducted in Hubei province demonstrated over half of lower secondary school students fail to develop self-worth and life satisfaction to some extent after being left behind.

In the worst cases, left-behind children were found to be more likely to suffer from acute mental and psychosocial challenges, including higher diagnosis rates of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and paranoia.

These findings corresponded to those obtained by Wang, Zhou, and Hesketh in their cross-sectional survey in 2014.

Teachers should be trained to handle students’ emotional upheavals, as children’s emotional instability adversely affects their academic growth. In most circumstances, rural teachers in China attend normal universities – higher education institutions that exclusively train prospective teachers.

Therefore, authorities managing normal universities should consider adding special educational needs training to prospective teachers’ learning curricula. An appropriate pedagogy to take care of and manage students’ emotional status and, therefore, raise students’ academic performance might be particularly conducive to the wellbeing of children who are left-behind, as they often lack emotional attachments at home.

Overall, both the central and local governments should jointly deliver a set of policies to strengthen parent-child or teacher-child bonds for left-behind children. Otherwise, their academic, career, mental, and emotional development could all be at stake.

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