Ding Xinzhu considers herself a strict mother. She lays down the rules for her four-year-old daughter, Yueyue, and she says she's the only one in the family of seven whom Yueyue 'is afraid of' and obeys.
'I told her she needs to sit up straight and feed herself at the table. If she disobeys, I will spank her. She cries, but she listens to me,' Ding, a 34-year-old executive in Shanghai, said. She picked a prominent kindergarten for her daughter and chose painting and ballet as extracurricular activities. On weekends, Yueyue takes piano lessons. 'I think I'm the most demanding among my circle of mothers, but I'm only trying to provide the best for my child and prepare her for the future,' Ding said.
Ding is one of many well-educated, professional women who see the cut-throat competition in their daily jobs and are ready to do anything - good schools, intensive training, or extracurricular activities - to make Yueyue's r?sum? impressive to prepare their children. The mothers love their children, but they also want to make sure they are strong enough for a life of competition, which they believe will only worsen.
The preparation starts early.
Last year, Ding's family moved from their downtown apartment to a remote area in Pudong so that her daughter could walk to a prominent public kindergarten. They paid a 60,000 yuan (HK$70,800) 'donation' for Yueyue's place, even though it meant she and her husband now have a two-hour round-trip commute to work.
What's more, with her daughter 11/2 years from entering primary school, the family sold its downtown apartment to get a new one in Pudong, which guarantees entry to 'middle to top schools'.
'The primary school has only five years and the middle school only five years, too, which means she skips two years. The middle school is known for being strict, but they teach French and ballet, which is very good,' Ding said.
Ding doesn't see her meticulous preparations as placing high expectations or pressure on Yueyue to be at the top of her class. 'I don't know how she will turn out. It really depends on her ability, but I try to provide her with the best,' she said.
Beijing office worker Wang Lin signed up her eight-year-old son for two extracurricular classes - 'maths Olympics' and English - even though he was enrolled at one of the capital's top public schools. She and her husband 'donated' 100,000 yuan so he can continue in the middle school.
'Everyone enrolled in an after-school English class, not only because it is useful, but also to prepare him to study overseas later,' Wang said, adding that other families at the school are preparing their children for secondary and tertiary study overseas. Her son, who is in the second grade, often stays up after 9pm doing homework. He is not allowed to watch television on weekdays, only some cartoons on the weekends.
'The sense of competition stems from our insecurity about the future,' Wang said. 'We don't have a sound social security network, and there is talk of delaying the retirement age, which means we might have to wait a few years longer to get our pensions. The cost of living is high, not to mention property prices and expensive medical care.
'Our children will be living in a cruelly competitive environment in the future, and I think the competition will be not only among [my son's] peers in Beijing, but also people from other countries, since Beijing has become more and more international.
'All you can do is prepare him with skills. A lot of children go to classes that look like extracurricular activities such as piano or dancing class, but are actually aimed to enhance their social skills and be more competitive.'
Wang said that because resources for a quality education were so limited, the competition was not about how bright the child was, but how well-connected or rich the parents were to get these resources. And if the child started becoming restless or rebellious over studying - as Wang's son did recently - Mum and Dad felt forced to be disciplinarians.
The standards at Wang's boy's school are high, such as 12 new words a day and a requirement that handwriting be not only neat and tidy but 'beautiful'. Wang therefore decided to ask his teacher to go easy on her son. He felt a sense of failure when he had to erase his writing and rewrite it many times because the teacher thought it was not 'beautiful enough'.
'I used to make him meet the school's demands, but now I think I need to protect my child first,' Wang said. 'As a mother I should suppress my anxiety and consider how much pressure he can handle. I just need to accept that not all the goals are going to be reached immediately.'
Wang denied she was trying to raise a 'successful future leader'; her wish was not to have her child 'be at the bottom in competition'.
'I don't demand that my child be the very top or excel at everything,' she said. 'I hope he gets high scores, but if he doesn't, I will not show my disappointment. I'm not laying a path for him. I just want to make sure he's put in favourable circumstances and tries his best, be it a teacher or cook what he decides to do in future. As long as he likes it.'
In Shanghai, Ding said she did not expect Yueyue to be at the top of her class or be like Lang Lang , the celebrated classical pianist known for undergoing years of stern training. The practice her daughter does is sufficient if, while doing it, she appreciates music more.
'You must be careful not to be pushy,' Ding said.
Ding said she felt guilty that she couldn't be with her daughter every night because of her frequent business trips. She tried to make up for her absence by taking Yueyue to Xiamen , Fujian , and Thailand and Hong Kong, where they visited Disneyland.
Wang's son is overweight, but she says she never laughs at him. She also says she shuts up if she senses he is not taking her criticism well.
One thing both mothers were strict with, they said, was teaching children to have good manners and be good people. They tried to nurture good qualities such as integrity, honesty and thoughtfulness.
Zhang Jing , a 33-year-old freelance artist in Beijing and mother of an eight-year-old boy, said his extracurricular activities were those he really liked, such as badminton, swimming, tae kwon do and chess. She noted that since she would have only the one child it was important to teach him not to be self-centred or extreme.
'It's common for the only child to be used to being the centre of his or her parents' and four grandparents' attention and act selfishly when he's playing with other children. I encourage him to be considerate of others and open-minded. I want to raise him to be a good person who doesn't harm society. That's the bottom line,' Zhang said.
Wang talked about a metaphorical 100-point scale of the 'perfect life' and said she told her son he would already get 60 points for being kind, honest, having integrity, fulfilling filial duties to elders and being healthy.
'I told him you get 20 points for being hard-working and eager to learn,' she said. 'Achievements account for only 10 points. A child is not a vessel to be filled but a torch to be lit. That's a verse I read the other day, and I have been pondering it.'