09/11/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

China's Children

Young Chinese parents are very anxious about their children. For some it is anxiety that their sons or daughters should do well and be the best.

For many others it is the collective consequence of the first anxiety. Many young parents I've talked to in recent visits to China have expressed serious concerns about the pressures their children will be subject to. The intense competition for being the best begins early in China, and parents fear this is harmful for their kids.

"They are forced to work too hard to be competitive at the next level."

"I wish I could send my two-year-old daughter to the United States." "Whenever Chinese children are exposed to a year in the U.S. or U.K., they don't want to come back."

These are serious sources of hardship for Chinese families, and it's hard to see how it will end. Will there emerge a Chinese John Dewey with a rallying call for a new philosophy of education? Will anyone speak up for the importance of play and free expression of imagination in childhood and adolescence?

Chinese parents are empathetic to their children. They want them to be happy and successful. They know that too much competition destroys happiness and breeds insecurity. But they feel that their children are locked into a system of endless competition they are powerless to affect. They want a new philosophy of education for their students.

The hardships created for the children and their families are serious enough and are compelling reasons for real efforts towards change. But we can also ask whether this system works from the point of view of developing talent. It is my impression that it does not -- or at least it isn't superior to more relaxed attitude towards a child's development. There is a degree of self-discipline that a student must have in order to learn -- pay attention in class, do assignments in a serious and timely way, and so forth. But once that threshold is met, further competitive pressure for grades, test scores, and other accomplishments is probably counterproductive. To grow up to be an imaginative and clear-thinking adult, the child needs a degree of independence, leisure, and play. These seem to be in short supply for China's children. And Chinese university students themselves complain that the pressures to do well on college entrance examinations emphasize a rote kind of learning throughout middle school and high school that interferes with real ability to think innovatively and creatively.

Here is a perhaps unrelated phenomenon but also a troubling one. I visited a national university in Chengdu last week on the day that new students arrived from all over the country. There were 5,000 freshman students, often accompanied by their parents and grandparents. An administrator told me that freshmen students are not permitted to bring a laptop or tablet during their first year; instead they are required to use computers in campus labs. I asked why that was. I was told that many students arrive with an Internet "addiction," and have been spending hours every day playing games on the Internet while in high school. So the university is trying to reduce this distraction from their studies.

The two phenomena may seem inconsistent, but perhaps one is an unintended consequence of the other. Maybe the unrelenting pressure on children is creating a backlash of resistance and disaffection among some of China's most talented young people. And perhaps this ought to stimulate some serious public debate about childhood.