Raising a Child in China: Choosing a Kindergarten

This is the twelfth installment in a series about giving birth and raising children in Chengdu, you can find the previous post here: Raising a Child in China: Two Worlds or the entire series here: Chengdu Living Series.

People who have no children (and all Chinese) tell me that raising a child is expensive. I would hear the phrase “baby gotta eat” in my head and think of diapers whenever someone spoke about the financial burden that children place upon the Unready. But for the past two years I have found that children really aren’t that expensive. My kids eat leftovers, basically, or drink mama’s milk; diapers aren’t that expensive and I’d say 1/3 the time we just end up washing soiled clothes. The biggest kid-related expense so far has been plane tickets. So by that rationale, breastfeed and use open-butt pants, and you should be fine.

But two years is now slowly approaching three, and I sense a financial burden in my future. A burden which may just last for the next 20 years or so and give true meaning to the phrase “baby gotta eat”. That burden is, of course, the boy’s schoolin’. If I could get freaky with a principal I would, but China doesn’t work that way. The most I could get through offering up my body is a very small discount. Kindergartens (and school in general) are in extremely high demand in China and, like all industries, the education industry raises prices to accomodate demand.

Colorful Kindergarten

Besides this looming financial burden, a lot of other things converge when a kid turns three. I have discerned two trends, but there are more, if you look hard enough.

One inexorable movement is the slowing of a parent’s motors. By three, moms and dads are just plain exhausted. We’ve been wiping this kid’s butt every day, several times a day, and then dealing with all sorts of ridiculous demands, like: Play with me from 6am to 11pm non-stop and then sway to my nighttime screaming like that caterwauling was Cee-Lo dropping another babymaker. By now, all we (or better put moms) want, is some time away from the beautiful, adorable spawn of our loins.

Concurrently, kids are getting bored with parents. We don’t play that much anymore, we refuse to wipe dirty butts, and when kids scream we scream back. By this point, kids start needing playmates. When my son sees a girl or boy his age he immediately starts grinning and he sidles up to say hello. He might even offer a toy or a piece of mantou he picked up off of the floor. And if the kids determine that they can play together, then the shrieking and scampering starts and doesn’t end until one or both throws a tantrum.

So there really is no choice. It’s either kindergarten or insanity. I’m on the fence, but my wife has already chosen her kindergarten and is merely waiting for me to accept reality.

Kindergarten Panorama

The Waldorf Effect

When I stood outside of the Waldorf Kindergarten and watched the kids play there, I felt something magical happening. The playground is simple: sand, some water, and several simple wooden structures. Every space had a child or three chattering about something. Groups were digging in the sand and filling up pants pockets and perhaps a bucket, older girls were supervising small chains of boys carrying water back and forth, older boys marched through the playground with some sticks as the lil guys and a few lil girls followed single-file. It looked and sounded like a Mark Twain story dusted with Japanese fairytale magic and a pinch of Peter Pan.

The GardenI stood there for a while and just watched them, dreaming about my own days as a kindergartner in Bremerhaven, Germany and imagining what it would be like for my boys. I may have caught the Waldorf Kindergarten on a good day, but the impression stayed with me and now as we look for a place for Dorian, that afternoon last spring serves as a benchmark.

Unfortunately I am not the only one who feels that way about the Waldorf school. The waiting list for the kindergarten is years long (many parents joke that you should sign up as soon as you find out your pregnant), and the Waldorf School is far away, over the Third Ring Road. But the magic of that school has given birth to a mushrooming development across Chengdu and other cities in China: the 家庭幼儿园, or Home Kindergarten, which takes the philosophies of the Waldorf School and tries to implement them in small settings, small kindergartens.

There are several around Chengdu – perhaps a few dozen – and more than 300 across the nation. Some of the Home Kindergartens existed before Waldorf, and the teachers just took on some Waldorf sensibilities, while others were established after teachers came into contact with Waldorf and decided to try it on their own. The Home Kindergarten trend is demand-driven, so you will find both opportunists and visionaries.

But what exactly is the demand?

A Garden for Children

Many of you already know this, but Kindergarten is German for “A Children’s Garden,” which is a perfect description of what “school” should be between the ages 3 and 5 (and forever after as far as I am concerned …). In China, schools are anything but a garden. Most public kindergartens are crowded and understaffed, infused with Communist Party values, and strangled by an ethos of achievement that has 2 year olds learning how to read and 3 year olds starting math. The pressure leads to unhappy children and stressed out teachers. The extreme end of this type of system can result in some twisted scenes.

Kindergarten AbuseI feel for them. I went to public school and I turned out … fine … and I am sure most Chinese who go through the school system here come out the other end ok, but I am not trying to put my son through that system. Things should be better for the son than for the father, and this sentiment actually drives both the rigor of the public schools and the rise of the home schools.

Affluent, educated families run by Chinese mothers who have been branded Tiger Moms are shunning the public schools for other options. They’re starting to want gardens for their children too – or at the very least environments where they will not be beaten, harangued or otherwise abused. Achievement has not taken a back seat to enjoyment by any means, it just seems as if Chinese moms are realizing that drilling a kid from dawn to dusk may not be the best way to help him get ahead.

Choosing a Kindergarten

For us, the decision is still ongoing. Waldorf is too far away and we aren’t on the waiting list, and public schools are out of the question – not just because of fear of violence, but also because Dorian might face some “Mixed Blood Prince” issues there that we would rather not have to deal with down the road. The international schools are too expensive for us – the cheapest option that I know of is QSI – and we actually have become slightly enamored with the Home Kindergarten idea and movement. Home Kindergartens are often run by local moms taking the issues into their own hands and trying to create a better life for their children. They are often very serious, very dedicated, and very earnest about what they are doing.

When I went to visit one of these kindergartens, near Chengdu Gardens in the west side of the city, it felt a little like that magic we were looking for. The gate opens up on a small playground, covered in sand, rocks, water and wood. A beautiful house with a closed porch and shuttered windows beckons toward the back. The kids were welcoming and Dorian immediately scampered off and forgot about us. The teachers also seemed very sincere.

When my wife asked other kindergartens when kids should start, the answer was all too often, “whenever they can eat and pee by themselves,” which is actually about the teacher’s comforts, and not the child’s. The teachers at the Home Kindergarten we visited did not seem eager to accept any child under three, because, as they said,

“Kids need to be physically and psychologically ready for kindergarten, not just thrown in for everybody else’s convenience”.

Kindergarten Friends

And that resonated because both we and the boys are moving toward that date, when we can spend a full day apart and feel good about it. But Dorian still loves to kick it with Dada and Mama, and although he might be a pain in my ass sometimes, it would suck to have him gone all day. Soon enough. By the time the boy turns 3 in February, it might just be time to send him off to the Garden to grow up like all the other kids.

Time really flies …

 What about you? Where do your children go to kindergarten? What are your experiences and recommendations? Let us know in the comment section.

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About Sascha

Sascha Matuszak is a writer and commentator on domestic and international culture and politics. He's lived in Chengdu on and off for twelve years and currently makes his home in the South of Chengdu.

9 Responses to “Raising a Child in China: Choosing a Kindergarten”

  1. I teach young learners English at a small private school and I have taught for several large ‘bilingual’ kindergartens in Tianjin. Every kindergarten I’ve taught at I have met nearly all of the teachers and in almost every single school approximately half of those teachers yelled at children during the day; relied purely on threats and mild forms of physical violence such as pushing or pulling the children too forcefully in order to get the desired behavior. Unfortunately, all the good teachers there weren’t enough to make me think twice about sending my future child to kindergarten in China.

    I’m also unable to afford an expensive international school, plus I’m not sure I’d want my kid to attend one with all the stories I hear of privileged attitudes.

    We will home school our child in our English school where we mainly teach young learners with out pressure and positive reinforcement. When they are ready for the first grade we will move back to the states and enroll them in a good school.

    • I think that’s a smart move, Carl. Although the prospect of returning to the US doesn’t really excite me (I still love the adventure of living overseas), I think I would do the same thing in your position.

  2. Good piece as always, Sascha – with a good few smiles along the way. We’re expecting our first in February, as Dorian reaches that point of no return, and you have confirmed what I have been thinking, I might get away with another couple of years of not prioritizing cash accumulation but that may, one day (in 2-3 years time), really have to change. Hey ho, its been a good run.

    Good luck to you guys, I am sure Dorian is going to love getting loads of mates. Take it easy, R

  3. We are also thinking hard about homeschooling for the first few years – perhaps till 5-6. It sounds nice, but the reality is pretty tough. By homeschooling I think I mean more “experiential learning” by travelling with us and basically hanging with mommy and daddy. But kids really really need kids. So school is a must. For a primer on Chengdu Education options with links, go to Gochengdu.cn:

    http://gochengdu.cn/living/chengdu-education

  4. Sascha, they definitely need to be able to interact with kids their own age. I’m just lucky that I already have a place for that. You can always find other expats or local moms with children around the same age as your child to have play dates while homeschooling.

  5. It’s tough to be stuck between high tuition at private schools and the low quality public education in China because you want the best for your kid. A lot of us have concerns about our own health and safety in China (food quality, pollution, etc) but worrying about your kids seems like another level of concern entirely.

    At least there’s a growing population of people who want something else for their kids. Do most foreigners with kids around kindergarten age put them in private schools like Waldorf?

  6. Sascha, I can understand your concern. I know exactly about the public schools in China, acuse I’ve been there. And that is why I won’t put my kid in public school again, I think the future generation deserves better.
    I am very interested in Waldorf , although I am only four months pregnant now , we’re already planning to check out on their campus. The waiting list is incredibly long. We have the same problem that Waldorf is too far. But if it is really worth to go, I may consider rent an apartment near the school.
    By the way, QSI offers good discount on tuition to their teachers’ kids, just in case you would apply a teaching job there and solve Dorian’s school problem at the same time.
    Good luck!

    • yeah probably not going to change careers just to get cheap tuition … we may just go to the Music Box for now, they have classes Tues-Sun for little ones … 2-5 years old.

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