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  • Writer's pictureZhiyao Xiao

Academic Achievement and Mental Health for Left-Behind Children of China

China was a predominantly agricultural industry. Its rice fields carried 7,700 years of history and nourishment. In ancient times, Chinese people were mainly farmers who catered to their emperors. Education was a privilege that only the noble families could afford.

However, as China industrialized, gigantic cities were born. Factories sprouted up in areas of Eastern China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangdong. The education system was also prompted to westernize to be more accessible in 1911, which allowed most Chinese children access to primary education. Higher education was still only for the wealthy.

China had suffered severe setbacks; the Rape on Nanjing, its crushing defeat with Japan, and their withering harvests had made farming unsuitable. Soon, poverty and famine ravaged the country as people could not keep up with the demands of its population. These farmers started venturing from the countryside into the cities for economic possibilities.

In three decades, the level of urbanization was unprecedented. Raising kids in famine was difficult, and the rising costs of living in the cities discouraged earnest parents from bringing their children. For this reason, many parents left kids that were old enough to care for themselves while they sought more economic opportunities. These children soon became known as the “left-behinds”(LBCs). LBCs still participated in rural schooling and tended household chores. The older siblings took the parent role when they were as young as 7 years old.

The China Agricultural Review began investigating LBCs and their education and mental wellbeing. They used fixed-effects modeling (including consistent observations and test scores) to gather their research. In their 2011 publication, they addressed the issues of LBCs by pointing out observations of chronic depression. They attributed extreme feelings of loneliness and loss of parental figure to these states. Although they distinguished no clear educational differences between LBCs and their peers, many LBC children had to take on twice their role to fulfill their parents’ absence. For example, many girls as young as 5 start attending to household chores—washing, cooking, and cleaning—which added additional burden. However, they argued that the increased responsibility among LBCs contributed to increased work ethic in both home and at school. Thus, there was no detrimental difference in academic achievement of LBCs compared to those of their peers.

Academic achievement does not mean mental wellbeing. LBCs tend to be more isolated, less likely to participate during classroom discussions because they experience detachment. Detachment in the childhood stage can be extremely dangerous. As it occurs in the critical stage of development, it can lead to fixation of certain behaviors. Insufficient love and needs met often cause growing children to become undisciplined, irrational, and fearful. These behaviors can manifest in adult stages and lead to domestic violence and other forms of abuse. Additionally, research has also found that girls may suffer more significantly than boys as LBCs— because of their historical role as a caretaker, they are more responsible for taking care of their siblings when their parents are away. Girls also have stronger emotional attachment to their mothers and therefore a loss of maternal love and support causes more significant mental anxiety and depression than boys do. However, additional factors such as one-parent vs both-parent migration can also stem some inconsistencies in findings which we will go into in later paragraphs.

Parents who decide to stay at home also encounter financial problems. To keep up with the demands, children are needed to work alongside their parents which takes away or limits their access to education. Some may argue that those in families that stay together can have a similar depressive mental state as some of the LBCs. Financial problems can strain many families, cause stress and even deaths. LBCs are able to go to school because their parents’ jobs in cities allowed them to live comfortably. Additionally, being a LBC forces children to live and learn independently, allowing them to be exceptional leaders. Both LBCs and their parents may be more nourished and have better health due to their parents earning more money. For this reason, many parents believe it is logical to migrate and earn more money. LBCs were just a small sacrifice they had to make.

There has been questioning about how the research is measured. For example, a majority of people labeled as LBCs are left with only one parent migrating while the other stays behind. Surely, this would also differ in its results with two-parent migration, which are shown to have a more negative correlation to math levels, and higher correlation with raised anxiety. This could also bias the study of LBC effects itself, as one-parent migration LBCs are relatively similar to those of parents who stayed at home, which would downplay the effects that both-parent LBCs endure. Even so, the Chinese culture has shifted to an urban lifestyle where both parents may pursue daytime jobs. These are another category of LBCs, where parents are absent throughout their day and home while they’re asleep. Many of these LBCs are raised by their grandparents which they form greater attachment to than their parents.

Another argument is that the course of the school year (8 months) is too short to measure the long term effects of being a LBC, including those of more evolved depressive/mental health disorders which manifest after specific lengths of time. For example, to be diagnosed with depression, some physicians evaluate depressive symptoms over a span of a few months or years. A school year may not be sufficient time to measure and conclude that these kids in fact suffered from depression. Struggles in a family dynamic may also be present once the parents return, which can also cause problems between the kids. As kids are ingrained to their concrete rules, a change in family environment can pose as a threat. This severs the loving connection parents and their kids have at birth as they might refuse to acknowledge these people as parents. There are multiple factors that can implicate the validity of this study.

To conclude, most LBCs may experience negative effects and develop possible mental health problems. However, others may thrive under a challenging environment that can teach kids leadership and responsibility. There is no gender bias in determining the effect of being a LBC, but there are correlations that girls experience more anxiety due to their nature of caregiving and stronger emotional attachments. But what we know is that all these findings cannot be correlated without more long term research. We need to keep up with the increased rate of urbanization, which hints at a change in lifestyle. We also need to conduct more valid variables for different LBCs and the different effects each may encounter.

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