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Mom Misses Chinese Communist Child-Raising Help

Having raised her kids in a Shanghai school, expat mother back home in America longs for the structure and protection of Chinese society
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I went to this NYT op-ed by Heather Kaye expecting to hate it ... but in fact, she gives us a lot to think about. She and her husband lived for the past 16 years in Shanghai, but recently returned to the US. They've been raising their daughters in the Chinese system, meaning putting them in Chinese school (versus an international school), which means giving them a Chinese childhood. Now that they're back in the US, they miss some of it. Excerpt:

Our stringent government co-parent quickly made its presence felt. The girls’ Chinese kindergarten lectured us on everything, including how many hours our daughters should sleep, what they should eat and their optimal weight. Each morning all of the students performed calisthenics in straight rows and raised China’s red flag while singing the national anthem. Classroom windows were usually kept open to increase air circulation and prevent contamination by airborne illnesses, even during winter, when the kids would attend class wearing their coats.

We sometimes felt as if our children were on loan to us for evenings and weekends, to be delivered back to school each weekday.

Over time, the benefits kicked in. Constantly served up moral, history and culture lessons on pulling together for the sake of the Chinese nation, our girls came home discussing self-discipline, integrity and respect for elders. With school instilling a solid work ethic and a total drive for academic excellence, my husband and I didn’t need to push the girls to complete homework; the shame of letting their teachers and classmates down was enough to light their fires.

The prevailing student-centered American approach to education emphasizes the needs of the children and what engages them and promotes independent thought. China stresses that you can succeed — as long as you obey your teachers and work hard. To celebrate Chinese culture and offer an alternative to Western influences, government-funded events were always on offer, like traditional musical performances, operas and plays. At times, our girls would repeat propaganda or, concerned about keeping up with their peers, despair that we hadn’t tutored them earlier in math. At the end of the day, our less demanding American family culture helped keep the balance.

Raising kids in China was a plus in other ways — such as the heavy censorship, which results in a kid-friendly internet, and national limits on how many hours young people can spend playing online video games. Ironically, the tight control of the Communist Party surveillance state results in its own kind of freedom: With crime and personal safety concerns virtually eliminated, our daughters were riding the subway unsupervised in a city of around 26 million people from the age of 11. A constant but benign (and mostly unarmed) police presence kept order; streets and the green spaces around every corner were kept immaculate, and the sense of civic pride was palpable.


To be clear, I would not want to raise my kids in a Communist dictatorship. But if you think about what Kaye is saying here -- especially if you're a parent -- you see the advantages. What Kaye is talking about is a society that is confident in its own values, and believes it is the role of society to protect kids from harmful influences.

Of course I would not for one second like my kids learning Communist propaganda! But consider the propaganda that our kids routinely get here, especially by woke teachers pushing racialist propaganda and the radical LGBT narrative. Even more important, though, is the discipline that, in Kaye's telling, marks the school experience in China. I attended public school in the 1970s and 1980s, in one of the best school districts in my state, and indeed in a pretty socially conservative part of the country. When I left for my last two years in high school (1983-85) in a public boarding school for gifted kids, I was stunned by how different the classroom experience was when teachers did not have to spend so much time and effort trying to get kids to shut up and pay attention.

Raising my own kids in 21st century America was a meaningfully different experience from what I had growing up in the pre-Internet, pre-cable TV era. In my day, kids could pretty much go over to their friends' houses without their own parents having to be concerned that they were going to get in trouble. There was no such thing as easy access to porn. At most, you could get into somebody's dad's stack of Playboys, but even that was difficult because if your buddy's dad was a Playboy reader, chances are he kept them safely hidden away. And if you did find them, whoop-tee-do, what you saw was nothing compared to what kids today could be exposed to. A few years ago, I heard about a parent we knew who was angry at a different parent in her kid's play group, because that other parent was more lax about letting kids have access to the Internet and TV, and her young son came home having been exposed to hardcore porn. That practically never happened when I was a kid. That was a long time ago.

I remember thinking when my kids were younger how much easier it was for my folks, and the parents of my generation, because everybody had more or less the same standards. If you misbehaved, you could be sure that somebody else's mom was going to call you on it. I didn't realize how much easier that made parenting until I had kids of my own, in our badly fragmented society -- especially when it comes to social media and Internet use. You can work hard to curate what your kids are exposed to, to keep the bad stuff away from them, and then they could go over to the house of their friend with the Fun Mom, and your work will be torn down in a single afternoon.

If the US government banned porn, period, I would be thrilled. A kid-friendly Internet? Sign me up! Kaye writes that "our girls came home discussing self-discipline, integrity and respect for elders." This was the home culture in which my sister and I were raised, and that many of our classmates were raised. But it was already starting to come apart then; the Sixties didn't reach our town until the Seventies. It's not that teachers today don't care about self-discipline, integrity, and respect for elders, but rather that if their schools tried to instill those things, some Karen parent would complain about oppression, or a black parent would gripe about "white culture," and so forth.


I live now in Hungary, not China. As I've said here many times, Hungary gets an extremely bad rap in the US media, as some kind of autocratic, authoritarian hellhole. This is a lie. In fact, Hungary is a Western country, and parents here are also struggling with the destructive effects of Internet culture. Their kids are becoming rather American -- and that's a bad thing. In fact, living here makes an American acutely conscious of how powerful our culture is, and not for the better. Hungary today feels to me like the United States in the early to mid-1990s, just before things began to fall apart. Nevertheless, the streets of the capital, Budapest, are very safe. I would think nothing of allowing my 11 year old to walk the streets alone. Last year, a friend from Alabama and his 12 year old son came to visit, and were both shocked by how safe the capital city is. This is another fruit of having a strong, cohesive culture -- a culture far more liberal than China's, to be sure, but not as liberal as America's.

When, in the late summer of 2021, the Fidesz government passed a law keeping LGBT material aimed at children and minors out of schools and the media, most Hungarians were grateful for it. Their kids are already hammered with this stuff on smartphones. They saw their government as helping them inculcate their own values in their kids, not the values of the USA, western Europe, activists, and woke capitalists. Sadly, judging by what I see out and about on the streets, Hungarian parents don't see how giving their young children smartphones works against what they're trying to do in raising them. But at least their government is on their side. If you want to raise your kid to accept gender ideology, nobody is going to stop you from doing that at home. But you can't do it in school, or in the media. Mind you, Hungary is not a religious society, but it's still more socially conservative than America is. Good.

Anyone even slightly conservative who is tempted to complain about Hungary, I invite you to come to Budapest and spend some time here, if you can. You may leave wondering how and why we used to have a country like this in America, but lost it. Here's the thing about these supposedly authoritarian states and raising kids: somebody is going to be in charge of setting the standards, the disciplines, and the expectations in the schools. Do you really think that American schools consider themselves responsible to the American people? Over and over, we learn that when it comes to teaching LGBT material (for example), and for handling LGBT-identified students, many schools have written policies articulating plans to deceive parents. Is that freedom? Moreover, if you have money, you can withdraw your kids from public schools and put them into a private school more to your liking. But most people in America don't have the money for that, so their kids are at the mercy of the ideologues who run local school systems, and at the mercy of other kids who have no respect for elders, no self-discipline, and contempt for integrity. Again, I spent my school years up until grades 11 and 12 in a good public school, back in an era when families were more cohesive, and discipline was taught at home. And still my teachers had to spend an incredible amount of time simply trying to control the classes.

Then again, as my late sister, a public schoolteacher, told me once, the kids that schools have to deal with today come from very unstable family situations, and are often so stressed out by that instability that they can barely keep their heads above water. This is not a problem schools can solve. You'll remember the story, maybe, of the Dallas school board member who came to an editorial board meeting some years back, when I was on the Dallas Morning News editorial board. He represented the poorest district in the city. When asked about what he's going to do to get test scores up among students in his district, he said that we had to understand that most of the kids came from badly broken families, or, if immigrants, from families where both parents were working long hours, and couldn't give their kids good formation. There's only so much the school can do for these kids, he said. After the meeting, some of my colleagues were angry at that man, considering that he must be lazy and unwilling to do the hard work to improve his district. But I knew from what my sister had told me (a number of her students were from poor, or barely-getting-by families) that the man had a point. We in America have created a society that has a lot of freedom, but we don't seem to care much for those who have fallen through the cracks. And by "care much," I'm not talking about cutting them welfare checks; I'm talking about the lack of structure and purpose built into society and its habits, and disciplines.

My father grew up in rural poverty, but in a family and a working-class culture that valued hard work and self-discipline. After World War II, when opportunities for people like him opened up, my dad took advantage of them. Lots of men did, and then women. He was able to do so because he came from a strong family culture, and was part of a broader culture that expected that of its young people.

Based on the research I did on China for Live Not By Lies, I would not trade what we have in the US for the Chinese way of raising kids. Read this agonizing letter from a persecuted Chinese man to his daughter on the verge of her return home if you think China is better off than America; it will set you straight. Excerpt:

I’m convinced that disaster looms, no matter how often the authorities reassure me that you won’t be penalized because of me.

The 20th century taught us all that they can’t be trusted under any circumstances. You’d have a better chance if you believed the Devil himself than trust anything that they tell you. Tens of millions of lives destroyed and legions of unrequited souls grieving in the wilderness speak a truth that is beyond words.

How could I not be agonizing over your return?

In the first place, the authorities probably already have your computer and mobile phone, including, of course, your WeChat account, under constant surveillance. They’ve probably compiled a detailed dossier as well—everything from what you’ve said and done while overseas, whom you’ve encountered, whom you plan to meet with, right up to and including the details of conversations on certain topics, the things you’ve taken an interest in, even what films you’ve been going to, or what you’ve published. They’ll pretty much have scoped out what you’re thinking today and what you’re planning to do tomorrow.

I can’t pretend that I have any particular insight into their precise modus operandi, let alone that I’m familiar with the routines of their undercover agents, but there’s one thing that I know for sure—it’s something that everyone in China is familiar with—Big Brother knows everything about you. Big Brother is not only omnipotent, he takes a particular pleasure in his work. 

Never, ever forget that that's how the Chinese Communist regime is. But that doesn't mean that every single thing about life in contemporary China is bad. I can see why Heather Kaye feels the way she does.