SHANGHAI — Conventional wisdom has it that education-obsessed Chinese parents send their children to years of arduous after-school tutoring to give them a leg up on the country's brutal college admissions tests. There may be more to it than that, however.
Those after-school classes — whether they focus on academics, the arts or sports — are in some cases the most convenient day care available to families with two working parents.
"In the city," said Du Yongmei, a Shanghai mother who works outside the home, "the living rhythm is quite fast, so that (parents) have no time to take care of the children. As the living conditions and income increases, more and more people will love to send children to tutors after school."
In China, it's common for grandparents to care for children after school. However, if the grandparents are dead, too old or live too far away, that's not an option.
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Other families may have the opposite problem: They think that four grandparents and two parents will spoil the child.
"The grandparents take care of the children very, very much, so that it usually harms the children's development, as well as their learning," Du said.
While these are a few of the reasons some parents give for enrolling children in after-school programs, most people, including Hoi Suen, an educational psychology professor at Penn State University, still think that parents enroll children in tutoring programs only to get them into good colleges.
"China is a test-driven culture," Suen said. "This is the reason parents enroll their children in after-school programs. If they don't, they'll be looked at as irresponsible."
This is typical in other Asian countries, as well, especially Japan and South Korea, where rigorous after-school programs in so-called "cram schools" are typically part of a child's primary education.
There's a practical reason for the cramming: College admissions tests determine which college a student may enter, and the choice of college often determines the life course.
However, Chen Hong, a retired primary school teacher who runs an after-school program, agreed that Chinese parents have different motives for sending their children to after-school programs.
While many are trying to give their children a better future, she said, there also are many hardworking parents who don't have time or family members to watch their children.
After-school programs in Shanghai range from formal, with timed class sessions, to informal, similar to day care centers in the United States. Some children attend immediately after school each weekday; others go a few days a week. Some programs charge by the month, while others charge per class.
Chen runs her after-school program, which Du's child attends, from her home. It has about 20 children in the first through fifth grades, and she charges parents 1,000 yuan — $150 — a month, which is average for after-school programs.
In Shanghai, the 2008 average monthly wage was 3,292 yuan, or $485, and the minimum monthly wage was 1,120 yuan, $164, according to the Shanghai Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau.
Children aren't the only ones who face intense competition.
Xu Anqi, a sociologist at the Center for Family Research at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the work force in China was very competitive, and that pressured parents to work long hours.
In America and Japan, it's common for one parent to quit his or her job to raise the children, but Chinese parents can't afford to quit, Xu said. In these cases, parents either can send their children to after-school tutors or hire baby sitters, and they'd rather leave their children with tutors because of the competition to perform well academically.
"Parents are very busy, so they worry about their children," Xu said. "They want their children to be taken care of and want them to be well-educated."
At Chen's program, children arrive after school at around 4 p.m. The students do their homework, and then around 5 p.m. Chen serves dinner. The children start their homework again at 6 p.m. Parents come to pick up their children at around 8:30 p.m.
Parents come knocking on her door to beg her to watch their children, Chen said.
"Chinese children are like the sun," Chen said. "Everything revolves around them."
(Conrad, a graduate of Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)
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To follow developments in China, see McClatchy's China Rises blog