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Letting go is hard to do
By Wang Jie

PROTECTIVE "helicopter" parents and grandparents still walk, cycle or drive high school students to and from school each day, even just a few blocks. Wang Jie reports on fretting hand-holders and "big babies."

For most Chinese parents and grandparents, the first thing in the morning is to take their children or grandchildren to school - primary, middle, or even high school, when children can certainly walk by themselves, take a bus and manage transport.

It can be on foot, by bicycle, moped or car. It's not uncommon to see high school seniors dropped off by their parents. In the US and Western countries students would be mortified by their hovering parents.

These young people are known commonly as "big babies" (da xiao hai 大小孩) because their parents seem to do everything for them. They are the product of extreme "helicopter" parenting.

In many cases, the escort service doesn't end, even after a young person enters university. Many families prefer not to send their children on school buses, when they are available, citing cost and safety.

"I drive my daughter to high school every morning and pick her up every afternoon," says Huang Hao, owner of a small private venture. "Since she was in kindergarten, taking her back and forth has been a routine job for me for more than a decade."

This is understandable if her daughter is in kindergarten or primary school, but high school?

"It's because our home is not near her school, it's around half an hour's drive," Huang explains. "Do you know how precious that half an hour is to a high-performing high school student? She can eat breakfast in my car or recite English on the way. She goes to sleep around 11pm, it's better to let her wake up a bit later so I can take her to school."

She could take a school bus, but it takes 15 minutes longer than the drive, since other children are picked up along the way.

Even students who live virtually next door to high school get parental or grand-parental escorts who often carry the students' books and knapsack.

"It is about a 10 minutes' walk," says Wang Yi, mother of a third-year junior middle school student, aged around 15. "The atmosphere in this whole society is not quite secure. I'm afraid my daughter might bump into some 'freak uncle' on her way. Since I get up earlier to prepare her breakfast, why not walk her to school in case of anything untoward?"

Wang's words are echoed by Feng Yuqi, a 60-something grandmother of a 16-year-old teen.

"He's so fragile that I have the responsibility to protect him. The environment is not the same as it was 20 years ago. If I don't take him to school every day, then I will constantly worry about the bad guys and the traffic. I told my daughter that I am able to escort my grandson to school every day until he enters university," says Feng.

The reasons vary for escorting "big babies" back and forth from junior and high schools.

Sometimes it's habit, sometimes it's a convenient way for children to say time and energy, and sometimes it's intended to protect against "bad guys."

"I always tell my wife that providing security is critical in nurturing our son," says Peter Fan, a lawyer and father of a second-year junior school student. "Due to the one-child policy, parents cannot make a minor mistake. Frankly, my own parents let me go to primary school by myself, but the situation today is totally different."

Fan says transport in the morning is "terrible, not to mention the freaks in society. If I am with him, at least I can try to protect him."

Critics say Chinese children and young people are too dependent on their parents and do not develop their own independence and life skills.

"Do you have a child? What's more important? Independence in a world with hidden dangers or total security?" Fan asks.

Parents do get exhausted from the daily escort - plus overseeing homework and taking children to and from extracurricular training classes.

"This is the kind of job I can never quit," complains stay-at-home mom Wu Yin, who used to have a career.

"Now my son is 13, and I had to resign my job several years ago since I was unable to rearrange my working schedule to pick him up in the afternoon. This was painful to me, especially as a career woman. My life changed, and I reluctantly changed from being the human resources director of a big company to being the chauffeur of my son," Wu says.

In Shanghai, school buses are not very popular, both because of cost and safety concerns.

"I once tried to send my daughter to school on the bus but the cost put me off," says Hu Jianjun, mother of a third-year primary school student. "It costs nearly 1,000 yuan (US$160) a month, which is too much for a working family. So I decided to take her to sit on the back seat on my electric bicycle."

According to the school, the cost is quite reasonable.

"To guarantee the safety, we need to rent a bus and an experienced driver," says the head of a school's logistics department, declining to be identified. "Regular vehicle maintenance and fuel costs are more than what you expected."

Even if the cost isn't a problem, many parents are concerned about the physical safety of the buses, citing overcrowding and poor construction.

"There is a school bus for my son, but I didn't register," says Peter Fan. "The reason is simple. I don't trust the driver. Have you seen the news reports on the safety of school buses in China? I cannot afford any hidden danger."

Song Ye, a 15-year-old junior middle school student, says that her parents stopped taking her to school several years ago.

"Every morning I walk to the bus station, I take the bus to the next stop, transfer to the metro and 35 minutes later, I arrive at school," Song says. "I felt quite nervous on my first day going to school, but later I realized there's nothing to be afraid of. Now I'm good and using public transport."

Song Ye's mother, Hu Jingwen, says she struggled over the decision to let her daughter go to school by herself.

Hu recalls the last words of a terminally ill friend who said she had been overprotective of her son and did everything for him. "But she told me she was now worried about him and regretted not teaching him to be independent."

Hu says she thought a lot about her friend's words. "She opened my eyes since I used to do everything for my daughter as well. Life is filled with uncertainties and misfortunes and I can't shadow her all her life. Why not let her face things directly and as early as possible?"

It wasn't easy, and at first she even followed her daughter as she made her way unassisted on public transport. "Now I feel quite proud of her, since she is more independent than her peers," she says.

Hu has suggested her friends adopt a similar "hands-off" policy and says she plans to send her daughter to high school in the United States. "This is the first step in training her to be able to take care of herself."

Many Chinese parents have complicated feelings when it comes to encouraging their children to be independent and self-sufficient.

"Don't preach to me about all the benefits of independence for a child. I fully accept it, yet it's hard to do," says Gu Ning, who has a 16-year-old son in high school.

There is no parent who doesn't want to see their child grow mature and strong, but at the bottom of their heart, they never consider their child to be grown up, he says. "I have to remind myself of the fact that our children are braver and smarter than we expect.

"This term I have allowed my son to go to high school by himself. After all, this is the road and the road after that, which he will have to face by himself," he adds.

Feng Yalan, a consulting psychologist, says most parents underestimate the abilities of their children.

"In their eyes, their children are the never-grown-up kids. Please remember, your children are stronger than you expect. You have to let him or her to on the road by themselves because it's impossible to escort them all their lives, even though you want to do so," she says. "The earlier their training in independence, the better will be their character and their ability to deal with harsh realities."

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