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Special Report

Early Education

Haste Makes Waste

Child psychologist Zhang Meiling says parental care and smiles are the best ways to reach young children – and don’t cost a thing

By NewsChina Updated Apr.1

Many Chinese retirees retreat to their garden, but Zhang Meiling, 80, former researcher with the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, continues her work on nurturing children, not flowers. She has been studying children’s mathematical cognition for 46 years, appealing to parents to give children more freedom, rather than fixate on the country’s notorious examination-dominated system.

On January 1, 2016, a new national family policy allowing every couple to have two children was implemented. There are expectations of a new baby boom, but it hasn’t yet materialized – due, in part, to the heavy cost of raising a child. Many young parents are attaching growing importance to the education of their children which is already reflected in the market. A growing number of early childhood education (ECE) programs and institutions are springing up, trying to get a finger in the pie. 

In her interview with NewsChina, Zhang said ECE is important – but only if it is conducted scientifically, in line with the physical and mental development of children. For children under three, parental care is the most important thing and parents should avoid imposing their anxieties on children. 

NewsChina: Many ECE institutions specialize in children under three. What does this period mean for children? 

Zhang Meiling: The period when a child is under three plays a key role in building the parent-child relationship, laying a foundation for family education.

Many children become rebellious and find it hard to communicate with their parents when they reach their adolescence. It is easily discovered that most of these children were raised by their grandparents when they were under three. The importance of the period lies in establishing a sense of safety for children. 

NC: Is it necessary for parents to conduct ECE for children? 

ZML: Children are only awake for quite a short time a day at that age and the main thing is that parents should hug them more because skin to skin contact is the best way to pass on love and safety. The best ECE takes place at home – smiles and parents are always the best teachers for children. 

In addition, some training is necessary – for the parents. We know from research the ages at which it’s normal for children to raise their heads, learn to sit and crawl. Some days ago, a relative of mine sent me a video in which an infant was being forced to raise its head. I guess it was a practice arranged by some ECE institutions. The child is only 17 days old and generally speaking children don’t raise their heads until they’re about two months old. If the child gets hurt, it’ll be too late to regret it. 

NC: In addition to making sure children feel loved and safe, what kind of training should parents do? 

ZML: It is a crucial period for children under three to develop their language skills. Children aged two and a half are very active in expressing themselves. During this period, parents should talk more with their children. Parents could also read stories or play some nursery rhymes for them.

I do not recommend infants be read classic literary works because it is difficult for them to understand – including the Three-Character Classic (Sanzijing), one of the Chinese texts traditionally used for teaching young children.

NC: Many ECE institutions say it is crucial to take full advantage of a child’s critical development period, adding that it will affect their development if the period is not utilized properly. What is the critical period? 

ZML: China’s ECE sector started relatively late and it is far from mature. In the past, people mistakenly believed that it was enough if children could eat well and sleep well, paying inadequate attention to children’s linguistic capacity and their sense of safety. The market is in full swing now and some ECE concepts are gaining popularity.

The critical period is one of these concepts. It’s a time when children are more sensitive to environmental influences or stimulation than at other times. If a child receives appropriate stimulation, it is very easy for the child to learn and boost their capabilities quickly. 

The concept was proposed by Austrian biologist Konrad Lorenz. He discovered that geese or ducks bond instinctively with the first moving object that they see within two days after hatching and would mistake the object for mother. The first two days are the critical period for a goose or duck to recognize its mother. 

It will yield twice the result with half the effort if parents can take full advantage of this critical period. For example, between four and six months is the best time for a child to develop its visual sense and some color stimulation is recommended. If the critical period is missed, there are some ways to offset the loss but it takes more effort. 

NC: Some ECE institutions play up the idea of exploring children’s potential at an early age so they don’t “lose at the starting line.” How do you see these statements? 

ZML: Nowadays many ECE institutions have adopted quite scientific methods but some are completely market-oriented and deliberately cater to the whims of parents. After China allowed each couple to have two children, some parents who are planning for the second child think that their first child was not educated very well and hope to compensate with the second child. 

Actually, study should never be the main focus for children under three. The key to children’s intellectual enrichment lies in the development of neurons, which are mainly enhanced through play, rather than class teaching. Although children can learn some things and even recite them at a very early age, it is at a high time cost – for example by spending an hour to learn one word. With this time, it is better for children to play because their cognition has not reached the level of systematic learning. For example, it is not right trying to impose punishments or other controls if a two or three-year-old child does not behave well – because a three-year-old’s prefrontal cortex is not particularly developed, which is the key physiological mechanism for self control.

Children need to do different things at various stages. Before a chid turns three years old, the more of a sense of safety and care a child can receive, the better. For children between the age of three and six, the main task is play. After a child enters elementary school, the focus should switch from play to study. 

The current ECE market in China is chaotic, which affects the decision making of parents. Some ECE institutions borrow concepts from overseas without any changes which are not always suitable for Chinese children. Parents should be sensible in choosing ECE programs. 

NC: What criteria should parents use? 

ZML: Parents should ask first what are the theoretical foundation and operational principles of these ECE institutions. Education should never be 100 percent market-oriented and if the working staff lack a background in psychology and education that’s a very bad sign.

As a matter of fact, there’s no need for parents to send under-threes to ECE institutions because home and nature are always the best books for them. If parents insist on this, it would be better to wait until children can walk and talk. 

NC: The popularity of the ECE market reflects the concerns of parents. Where are their concerns coming from? 

ZML: Most parents born after 1980 were the only child in their family and grew up under a lot of pressure. They hope to raise their children with great care and ECE institutions are fully exploiting these parents’ expectations. The sources of parental concerns are multiple, including unfairness. Nowadays in China, both schools and society have been promoting education for all-round development or the skill-oriented education. Unfortunately, exam-oriented education remains dominant and this is the general background of Chinese society. 

Given this context, parents have two main misunderstandings. To begin with, some parents think a child has a particular talent when it is born and have great ambitions for them as a result. Most children after they are born, however, are perfectly ordinary and both the very talented and those with mental deficiencies are few and far between. In addition, some parents think that talent can be trained – something that is disputed in academic circles. As for my part, I believe genetic factors play a role and it is questionable whether talent can be trained. If talent could be trained, every one would be talented. 

Chinese parents are deeply affected by the traditional idea that people who study hard can get a good career. Children in the United States go to school to become a qualified citizen, but Chinese children, however, go to school to raise the status of their family and bring honor to their ancestors. Some parents treat their children as a way to show off. For example, they will say proudly in the office that their child is enrolled at Harvard University or got some awards at school. As a matter of fact, children are a mirror of their parents. 

China’s education is improving rapidly but is far from being able to meet the expectations of parents. The general public hope that every school has good resources, but this will be a gradual process and there will be inequality in the distribution of educational resources. Although China’s Ministry of Education bans schools from using additional enrollment criteria, all schools actually use additional criteria in disguise. On the other side, many parents are delusional about what’s involved and their manic pursuit of high-quality education for their children has partly contributed to the abnormal situation where kindergarten education is advanced for children under three and elementary school education starts in kindergarten.