Mainland Chinese parents need to factor children's safety into responsibilities

Food, clothing, shelter, education seen as their responsibilities, but it doesn't occur to them to protect children from harm or warn of risks

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 July, 2013, 4:14am

Mainland parents are known to attach the utmost importance to their children's academic achievements, but the safety of their offspring is often the last thing on their mind.

In the light of recent tragedies in Shanghai - involving the death of three minors and the injury of three others - parents would do well to revise this thinking.

The accidents - all the result of parental negligence - have clearly demonstrated loopholes in laws, social support networks and public awareness regarding how to keep children safe from inevitable accidents.

In response, the Shanghai Women's Federation, a quasi-governmental body, said it would distribute a manual on children's safety to parents through community service centres across the city over the next couple of weeks.

Starting this month, the federation also began posting regular tips on protecting children from danger on its microblog site, and said paying attention to children's safety is a "compulsory course" for parents.

The summer holiday is peak season for tragedies involving children. Each summer some 20 children die in accidents, far more than at other periods of the year, according to the Municipal Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

More than half of all accidents happen at home, with falls and scalding the top two causes, followed by road accidents, electric shocks, knife cuts and poisoning.

Earlier this month, a seven-year-old girl and her five-year-old sister fell to their deaths from the 12th-floor balcony of their home in Pudong after being left home alone. Their parents are migrant workers at a restaurant. Neighbours said the two girls often stayed at home without any supervision.

The Shanghai Women's Federation said it had lobbied municipal and national legislators over the past decade to introduce laws preventing children under 12 from being left at home unsupervised, a practice excluded from the current China Minors Protection Law. The federation said it had not had any response from officials regarding its pleas.

In a recent case that shocked the country, two Nanjing girls aged one and three starved to death after their drug-addicted mother neglected to feed them and locked them up for an extended period. She was charged with "intentional homicide" rather than the much lesser and more common charge of failing in her custodial responsibilities

A recent survey of 2,000 10-year-old pupils by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences found 40 per cent had been left alone at home, with some saying they had been left alone when they were under three years old.

In the eyes of most mainland parents their obligations to their children include providing adequate food and clothing, as well as access to proper education. However, protecting children from accidents and warning them of dangers is peripheral to parental thought processes.

Discussions on safety are not common between Chinese parents and children.

Many people disagree that parents found to be careless in taking care of their children should be penalised by the law. Instead, when accidents do happen, the public tends to sympathise with the families, believing they are also victims of the tragedy.

At the same time, a supporting social network is absent on the mainland. In their defence, the migrant worker parents of the children who fell to their deaths in Shanghai said they were busy working and could not find nor afford baby sitters.

On the mainland very few organisations - especially those run by the government - offer babysitting services.

In the Nanjing case, community officials, police and neighbours claimed they often visited the two sisters and gave them food. But their assistance was random and certainly not deemed compulsory under the law. The lack of a social network to provide a safety net for children whose parents chronically neglect them is a major reason why the Nanjing sisters starved to death.

The children's safety manual compiled by the Shanghai Women's Federation also provides information on how to deal with potential sexual harassment. The federation said education on this subject has also become urgently necessary after a string of sexual attacks on juveniles were reported recently.

In a headline-grabbing case in Shanghai, a senior male teacher at a top high school was found to have been engaged in "inappropriate" activity with many of his students in the 1990s. His student victims kept quiet about their sexual harassment until they reached their 30s and became fathers themselves.

The lesson here is that mainland parents who focus on encouraging their children to excel in academic subjects should spend more time on safety education as well. This is a part of their education that cannot wait.