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In rural China, once-hated family planners turn toddler advocates

Intense focus on the number of children per family is giving way to concern about preparing them to thrive in adulthood. In the countryside, that means teaching parents and grandparents long focused on providing food and clothing how to read to and play with their offspring. 

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Parenting trainer Yan Shuxia (r.) plays with Li Mengyue and her grandmother Wang Chunlin in Heigouhe, China.

Peter Ford/ The Christian Science Monitor

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Until six months ago, nobody played much with Li Mengyue, an apple-cheeked two-year-old growing up with her grandma in this remote, hardscrabble village in central China.

Now, as part of a project to make Chinese village kids smarter, Mengyue’s granny is getting weekly classes in how to use toys and books to exercise the little girl’s mind. And in an unexpected twist, the parenting lessons are coming in weekly visits by a woman from the family planning task force – long the most reviled of government agencies.  

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Behind the experiment, say Chinese officials involved in it, is a new approach to population that worries less about how many babies are born, and more about what they will be able to do when they grow up.

That has been an eye-opener for Wang Chunlin, the grandmother, sitting with her granddaughter in her cement-paved yard. “I never knew how many ways of playing with a child there are. And she really likes the games,” she says.

For Yan Shuxia, the one day a week she spends as a parenting trainer is a welcome change from her traditional role as enforcer for the government’s one-child policy, implemented 30 years ago and only recently relaxed. “I’d do this every day if I could,” she says with a smile. “People look forward to me coming to the village and they trust me. In the past the relationship was not like that.”

The need for Ms. Yan’s new services is great, and not just here in the mountains of southern Shaanxi Province. Rural children lag far behind their urban cousins by almost every measure; only eight percent of them take the college entrance exam, for example, while 70 percent of city kids do.

There are strong indications that the die is cast in infancy. A recent study of poor villages in Shaanxi found that nearly half of 30-month-old toddlers suffer from enough cognitive delays to mean they will probably not get beyond junior high school. Extrapolated nationally, that makes 3.6 million babies born every year prone to a similar fate.

The researchers running the toddler education pilot project believe that poor parenting has a lot to do with this. “It’s a knowledge problem,” says Scott Rozelle, a rural development expert at Stanford University working with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Shaanxi Normal University in the Rural Education Action Program (REAP) that has designed the experiment. “Caregivers just don’t know what to do.”

In a survey carried out before the project started, 76 percent of mothers and grandmothers said they knew that their farm animals needed to be fed micro-nutrients when they were young. Only 22 percent knew that babies need them, too.

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“They know more about raising pigs than they do about raising children,” says Shi Yaojiang, head of the Shaanxi Normal University team that is overseeing the project.

The same survey found that just 5 percent of rural mothers read regularly to their infants and that only 25 percent of them sing to them or play with toys together.

Today’s mothers have learned little, if anything, from their own mothers in this respect because the older generation was hardly concerned with such matters. “When I was bringing up my own children I didn’t really teach them anything,” says granny Wang. “We were poor and I just tried to make sure they had food to eat and clothes to wear.”

That used to not matter. “Mothers were raising peasants, with strong bodies and low IQs,” points out Zhang Linxiu, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The old ways of raising kids were fine in the old days but not anymore; they no longer suit society’s needs” as more and more people move off the land into cities and the Chinese economy moves up the value chain, demanding better educated workers.

So last October REAP began sending trainers out on weekly visits to 275 caregivers and the babies and toddlers they are looking after. They bring toys such as balloons, building blocks, mini-basketball hoops and picture books, and a pamphlet of simple instructions on what to do with them.

Each week they hold an hour-long class with the mother or grandmother and the toddler she is caring for, going through activities the caregivers can repeat for the rest of the week.

The curriculum changes weekly, as the baby grows, and the trainers swap toys and books on each visit. The course includes 144 different activities designed to encourage cognitive, social-emotional, motor, and language skills.

The first evaluation tests are due next month. Preliminary, anecdotal signs suggest that the lessons are working, researchers and mothers say.

“He used to be frightened around strangers, but now he is much more outgoing,” says Cao Liangliang, as a reporter tries to wrestle his pen back from the grip of her two-year-old son, Zhang Dongyu.

“All I used to do was watch cartoon videos with him, but now when I forget to read to him at bedtime he brings me the book,” adds the mother. “And he carries his plate to the washing up bowl after he has eaten.”

The choice of family planning cadres to give the training is not as strange as it looks, says Prof. Rozelle.

In the heyday of the one-child policy in the 1980s and 1990s, these officials were notorious in many parts of the country for their intrusive interrogations about women's menstrual cycles and often brutal forced abortions.

There are still some angry reports, but fewer and fewer Chinese parents want more than the number of children they are allowed, given the high costs of child-rearing. The last forced abortion in this district occurred in 2011, according to local family planning officials.

That leaves an agency with a million educated officials and a representative in every village in the country little to do except hand out contraceptives and pregnancy advice. Family planning agents in this region sometimes find themselves being asked to undertake all kinds of tasks, from resolving disputes between neighbors to cooking for local officials, one local resident says.

After one week of training last fall, the REAP project sent 70 of them into the field to teach parenting. “When I give the classes I feel younger,” says Ms. Yan. “The kids are happy, the parents are happy, and that makes me happy.”

“These trainers feel a sense of achievement,” says He Hongwei, deputy head of family planning for the city of Shangluo, under whose purview Heigouhe village falls. “They have built a new relationship with parents and children.”

If the pilot project works, REAP researchers hope the government will eventually scale it up to the national level. That might be expensive, they concede, but “today’s investment will be rewarded in the future,” says Cai Jianhua, head of training for the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

So far, he points out, the Chinese government has never spent a penny on toddler education and the focus of the family planning authorities has been on controlling population growth. Now, he argues, with that goal achieved, “it is time to shift our emphasis to improving the quality of the population.”

That, he says, “is in people's interests, it provides them with benefits … and it is in accordance with international practice. I hope it will improve our image.”