Chinese dads are going places

Kelly Yang is glad to find patriarchal Chinese society becoming more open to active fathering, if the buzz over a TV show is any guide

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 11:39am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 February, 2014, 1:54am

The most popular debate in China today is not about President Xi Jinping's policies or the latest Xiaomi phone. It's whether you're "dad enough".

A reality TV show about Chinese fathers has taken the nation by storm. Where Are We Going, Dad? is about five celebrity fathers who take their children on weekend trips, minus their mothers or helpers, all around China. The show averages over 600 million viewers a week, with an additional 640 million downloads online, and is currently one of the most popular trending topics on Sina Weibo.

When my friends from China first told me to watch the programme, I was sceptical. A show about a bunch of rich mainland dads? No thanks. But once I started watching, I couldn't stop.

The show gives a precious glimpse into the lives of modern Chinese families and the issues they face every day, such as the burdens of the growing middle class, the mushrooming numbers of only children, often spoiled with attention, the ever increasing dependence on helpers, and the clash between the traditional and "more progressive" views on parenting, specifically the role of the father.

This last part is what has so many viewers hooked. The five dads on the show have unique parenting styles, but they all clearly don't take care of their children on a regular basis. After each episode, citizens take to Weibo to criticise: one dad was too harsh, another, too lenient; another didn't know how to cook and forced his son to eat instant noodles for two days; and yet another was so useless he couldn't even tie his daughter's hair into a ponytail.

Not long ago, such behaviour would have been considered unsurprising, if not typical, given the traditional roles of men and women in Chinese culture, encapsulated in the adage "men rule outside and women rule inside". But if the online comments about the show are any indication, many Chinese are ready for a change. They want to see fathers take responsibility for bringing up their children.

Such a radical reversal of traditional thinking is in line with the trend of the hands-on dad in the West. A recent study by the National Centre for Health Statistics in the US showed that father involvement in parenting has gone up since 2002. Among other things, it found that nine out of 10 dads with children under five bathe their kids, put on diapers, and dress them several times a week.

As a mother, I celebrate this trend, and not just because it means less domestic work for me, which translates into me being able to lean in more at work. I applaud engaged dads like my husband - who gets up at 5am every day to get the children ready for school so I can get a couple more hours of sleep - also because, as an educator, I've seen the difference it can make in a child's life.

Sometimes, the difference between a child who has drive and one who doesn't isn't where he goes to school or what books he's reading. It's how often he has the chance to run up to his father and excitedly ask: "Where are we going, dad?"

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.