Into the wild: the Chinese parents pushing their children to physical extremes to teach life lessons

Some fathers are taking their sons off for a long walk in the woods to foster their ability to confront adversity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 10:41pm

Beijing father Guo Xiaoguang hasn’t decided yet where he is taking his 10-year-old son Dongdong on holiday this summer, but if the last few years are any guide Dongdong should take a survival pack.

Last year the father and son spent 40 days travelling around the western United States, hiking, driving and camping their way across 10 states, 19 national parks and four universities.

In all, they hiked 600km, drove 11,000km and slept most nights in their car or a tent.

“I didn’t choose comfortable hotels, but intentionally designed a travel itinerary with poor food and accommodation,” Guo said.

In the two previous years, Guo and Dongdong travelled China, enduring similarly spartan travel conditions.

The idea was to give the only child a taste of hardship to contrast with the comfort and attention he experiences at home in Beijing.

“I want to show him a real world that has both good things and bad things. [During the trip] he had to face difficult situations and overcome problems by himself,” Guo said. “I call it a survival experience and a hardship education.”

Guo is one of a number of Chinese parents exposing their children the more extreme conditions to ward off the “little emperor” syndrome, a description applied to coddled, spoiled only children who are the centre of their parents’ and grandparents’ attention, thanks in large part to the one-child policy, which was finally eased in 2016.

Qi Dahui, director of China Parents Education Research Institute, said it was positive to see more Chinese parents take their children on such educational adventures.

“It means many people are awakened and realising the importance of cultivating their children to have grit and the ability to endure adverse situations,” Qi said.

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But he said parents should ensure their children were both safe and keen to go on the trips.

“The adult should also pay close attention to the child’s health throughout the trip,” Qi said. “And children should not be forced to do it.”

For Dongdong, the experience was beneficial but there were times when it was not enjoyable.

“Sometimes I wanted to give up. But when I saw my father was just as tired as I was by my side, then I felt better and carried on,” he said.

Guo said the trips gave his son a sense of discipline that carried over at home.

“During the trip, Dongdong helped pack up my clothes and our electrical equipment and would fold up our tent. He would also put petrol in our car,” Guo said.

“Since the trip, he has been more disciplined at home, getting up on time every morning. He has also got into the habit of tidying up his things, washing up after meals and sweeping the floor.”

Guo and Dongdong’s experiences mirror those of Sichuan father Zhang Wei and his 12-year-old son Tutu, who went on an arduous 50-day hike last summer from their hometown of Zigong to Lhasa in Tibet, according to the Chengdu Business News.

“Every child is educated in a different way. I want to toughen up my child and help him grow up [in these trips],” Zhang was quoted as saying.

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Three years ago, Bai Yunpeng and his 10-year-old son Bai Yiming also made headlines walking 400km from Luoyang in Henan province to Xian in Shaanxi, China News Service reported.

Yiming described the 15-day hike as exhausting but worthwhile.

“Sometimes we walked 40km a day and I had blisters on my feet. I abandoned the idea of giving up. My father encouraged me to carry on,” he was quoted as saying. “When we accomplished our goal, the joy was overwhelming.”

But specialists in child health and education warn against pushing children beyond their physical limits.

Wu Zunmin, an education professor from East China Normal University, said children should pursue activities suited to their age.

“Endurance travel might harm a child’s health,” Wu said.

Shi Dongliang, a doctor from Shanghai-based Ying-Hua Medical Group of Children’s Bone and Joint Healthcare, said the distance a child could walk varied.

“There is a big difference between each individual child. Some five-year-olds can’t keep going after 4km, while some children who are only three or four years old can walk 18km every day,” Shi said.

He said parents should assess whether their child had the stamina for a long-distance hike and encourage children to do regular exercise before the trip.

For Guo, the benefits are clear and the decision is one for each parent to make.

“Every parent loves his or her child. I think we should educate kids through a way they accept,” he said.

“My son loves travelling with me. I hope through these travels, he can be gradually prepared to tackle any problem when he grows up and leaves us to live independently.”