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  • Writer's pictureJuntao Ren

How Do Children Develop in Rural China?

Updated: Aug 29, 2020

Parents in rural China undoubtedly want the best for their kid, with a significant majority of them willing to invest large percentages of their money to procure a proper education and career path for their kids.

However, a concerning low percentage of them actually know the necessary steps to take to ensure such opportunities.

Researchers have concluded that the most effective way to positively impact the rising generation in rural China is to invest money in ensuring the best developmental practices for kids within the first three years of their life. Returns from investment exponentially decrease after that age, as it is much harder to significantly improve cognitive abilities as children get older.

In other words, the money that is spent educating or cognitively stimulating toddlers at an early stage holds the greatest potential for a large return on investment.

Yet with such a logically simple approach, what is hindering it from success?


Many people hold the belief that it is always easier to learn things when we are younger. From languages to new habits, older folks are always encouraging the younger generation to “cast their net wide” and “learn as much as you can while you are young.”

As oversaid as it may be, this statement hold scientific merit. Indeed, a baby’s brain has the “neurobiological capacity for change in the foundations of the hierarchical process of skill development and brain malleability.”

However, empirical results have determined that such stimulation is lacking in the lives of children in rural China.

Researchers at Stanford's Rural Education Action Program has found that parents in rural China are not properly engaging with their babies when their brains have the greatest potential to absorb information and develop.

Statistical Measures

Using several “gold standard” parental screening tests, researchers have discovered that around 48% of children in rural China score below 85 on cognitive tests (equivalent to IQ scores below 90). 35% of them are also emotionally underdeveloped, compared to only 5% in urban areas.

Research shows that a concerning amount of children in rural China are not adequately developed in comparison to like-aged students in urban settings. Simply put, too many children in rural China has too low levels of cognitive development.

The consequences are not only a weak education foundation for the child, but also a hindrance to improvements in the labor force and the economic development of the entire country.

Insufficient Psychosocial Stimulation

Arguably the most influential yet least acknowledged factor causing deficient cognitive development is the prevalent lack of interactive parenting across rural China.

Very few parents in rural China recognize the importance of reading, singing, and playing to their children. Whereas about 73% of parents in developing countries like Colombia read to their children on a daily basis, this number is as low as 9% for parents in rural China. To the vast majority of parents, spending time reading to infants seems absurd, ineffective, and a waste of time and resources.

As more and more children in both rural China are being left in front of television screens to allow their caretakers the liberty to work undisturbed through the day, the lack of human interaction creates lasting consequences for the child’s well-being and neurological expansion.

Because many parents in rural China are not educated on the benefit and necessity in allocating time to interact with their children, they lose out on a crucial opportunity to establish a solid cognitive foundation for their children.

Poor Nutrition

Another considerable factor that affects these low levels of cognitive development is the lack of appropriate health clinics and nutritional programs for students.

When families in rural China have to choose between properly feeding their livestock or their children, malnutrition is often the consequence; sadly, healthy livestock ensures much more immediate monetary rewards than the long-term investment of ensuring a good educational experience for their child.

Using anemia as a specific example, more than 40% of toddlers in rural China are affected by the lack of sufficient levels of healthy red blood cells. With such deficiencies, it is sadly unsurprising that the cognitive developments process for affected infants and children fall behind significantly.

To combat such issues, China launched its first School Feeding Program (SFP) in 2012, hoping to ensure proper nutrition is delivered across schools in the country. Spending more than 31.8 billion RMB (about 4.5 billion USD), the Chinese government was adamant about helping more than 36 million children with malnutrition aid.

However, a lack of human and financial capital and vague nutritional standards ultimately let to no significant changes in BMI and anemia rates across tested regions.

Parental Migration

The issue of parental migration has also been one that is largely referred to when discussing obstacles to child development in rural China.

On the positive side, parents who leave to find better-paying jobs in the city ensure increased income for their families, theoretically allowing for more funds to be allocated towards early education. On the negative side, there is a decrease in care and attention, particularly when mothers migrate.

When left in the care of grandparents or other relatives, LBCs (left-behind children) are more likely to suffer from both malnutrition and inadequate attention. These patterns underscore the need for greater improvement in parenting practices among all rural caregivers. Even in the less severe cases of single-parent migrations, ramifications are potentially large if the remaining parent is not made aware of the necessities of interactive parenting.

Potential Solutions

With all that being said, what can we do to help?

In some cases such as nutrition, the solution requires significant monetary contribution as well as large amounts of capital resources, but are rather straightforward. Although cheap solutions have been developed for medical conditions such as anemia, intestinal worms, and myopia, the expansiveness of China's rural population still calls for a considerable amount of funds.

In more complicated cases such as parental migration and lack of interactive parenting, the need to sacrifice bonding time to earn more for the family is unavoidable. Luckily, there are still a series of potential solutions that can be used to combat the low levels of interactions.

For example, we can follow preexisting donation organizations such as Operation Christmas Child to create parenting packages that contain cognitively stimulating toys for families in rural China . Additionally utilizing the internet and online resources, videos and blogs establishing the need of interactive parenting are also a great way to spread awareness to parents and caregivers .

In the face of the cognitively-underdeveloped group of China’s rural youth, awareness and understanding is always the first step; then, corresponding actions must follow.

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