Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Good Child

    Moral Development in a Chinese Preschool

    Jing Xu

    Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017. 248 pp. $27.95 (paper).

    The economic, social, and cultural changes in China over the past four decades have generated complex and dynamic moral challenges in the everyday lives of both children and adults. For example, Chinese face competing moral demands between achieving individual market success and maintaining traditional values that often require self-sacrifice for social and collective purposes (e.g., the honor of one’s family, the development of the Communist state). Moral challenges are particularly salient for parents and teachers who are concerned with cultivating a moral child. The state’s birth control policy enforced since the early 1980s has produced a unique household structure of single-child families. The public discourse in society has perceived these singleton children, who are the center of attention in their families, as largely self-centered and spoiled. Thus, many educators and parents, especially among the urban middle class, are concerned about the social, psychological, and moral development of these children. Yet, the market reforms and global integration that began in the late 1970s have led to increasing competition, rising inequality, and rapid cultural change, generating both concerns about the moral environment in China and tensions around competing values among teachers and parents.

    Jing Xu’s The Good Child, an ethnographic study of a private preschool in a Shanghai middle-class neighborhood, details the various moral dilemmas faced by preschool teachers and parents in their everyday practice as a result of these cultural, economic, and social changes. Integrating survey and ethnographic evidences, Xu illustrates the moral dilemmas created by competing values of moral systems and child-rearing practices, discrepancies between ideology (what one believes in) and reality (what one perceives as necessary), and tensions between different socialization agents (e.g., parents and grandparents). In addition, through both participant observations and controlled experiments with the preschool children, she illuminates their agency and creativity as they develop their own moral understanding and evaluation and negotiate disputes and favors with peers and adults.
    As a native Chinese and a mother of a nineteen-month-old son who was enrolled in this preschool during the time of her fieldwork, Xu leveraged her unique positionality as both a US-trained education scholar and a fellow parent to engage and bond with the teachers and parents of the preschool. Employing a variety of methods, Xu offers an intentional construction of a dialogue between the anthropological literature on Chinese education and the psychological scholarship on children’s moral development. While psychologists offer experimental evidence of the emergence of prosocial dispositions across moral domains in infancy and early childhood, anthropologists provide ethnographic details on the processes of socialization and enculturation of morality in childhood. Thus, both disciplines have valuable lessons to offer and learn from one another in understanding human behaviors that are both driven by psychological mechanisms and generated through particular sociocultural dynamics.

    The Good Child is organized into five chapters, with chapters 1 and 5 focusing on the moral dilemmas of child-rearing and discipline for the socialization agents of the preschool. To locate the moral dilemmas, Xu first outlines the historical, contemporary, and local contexts, highlighting the prevalent concern of the preschool’s parents over their children’s social and moral development, the high level of family investment and educational competition in Shanghai, and the city’s materialistic and status-driven culture. Against this cultural backdrop, Xu discusses in these chapters several moral dilemmas of parents driven by a perceived conflict between the so-called Chinese and Western values in child-rearing practices. For instance, while the parents often described the Chinese way of child-rearing as either overprotective or oppressive, they depicted the Western style of parenting as carefree and as encouraging children’s autonomy, creativity, and natural propensities. One of the most salient battlegrounds for such a perceived value conflict was the practice of feeding at mealtime, as the parents struggled with spoon-feeding the child against his/her desire to eat or letting him/her go hungry until he/she chose to eat. They saw the “feeding” practice as exemplifying the protectiveness of Chinese parenting, whereby nurturing is emphasized over training the child to be independent through “noninterference” at mealtime.

    Xu shows how this dilemma was often complicated by a tension between different socialization agents in a household, especially between mothers and grandmothers, due to “intergenerational differences in child-rearing values” (p. 173). The birth control policy has produced a widespread “4:2:1” family structure, where there are four grandparents, two parents, and one child in a household. While the grandparents are often tasked with raising the child when the young parents are busy making a living, the parents often deem the grandparents’ child-rearing practices as “old-fashioned and unscientific” (p. 173). Take the battle of feeding, for example; a mother quoted in the study complained that while she attempted to follow the noninterference approach at mealtime, her mother would often “jump to feed” her son (p. 176). However, she could not fight with her mother: “To be realistic, if my mother gets angry and leaves us because of my son’s eating habit, we would have nothing to feed us (Grandma did all the cooking, because the young couple didn’t have the time to cook)!” (p. 176).

    Chapters 2–4 analyze the challenges and efforts of educators and parents in cultivating children’s social and moral development in specific moral domains—empathy, understanding of ownership and fairness, and reciprocity, respectively. These chapters highlight the particular strength of this work in integrating anthropological and psychological knowledge generated from a variety of data sources, including media discourses, ethnographic observations and interviews, and controlled experiments. I found the analysis in chapter 3 on adults’ dilemma with teaching modesty and generosity and children’s understanding of fair distribution especially effective in this regard. Xu starts the chapter with a discussion of a widely circulated social media post of a father complaining about a teacher for marking his first-grade son’s answer to a question on an exam as wrong. This exam included an essay on “Kong Rong Modestly Declines a Pear,” an ancient text that illustrates the Confucian values of modesty and deference. It told a story of the four-year-old Kong Rong, who was asked by his father to distribute pears and who chose to keep the smallest pear for himself while giving the bigger ones to his older and younger brothers. In response to the exam question, which asked, “What would you do if you were Kong Rong?” the first-grader wrote, “I won’t decline the bigger pear” (p. 97). The teacher marked this answer as wrong, which generated widespread societal critiques and identification with the student’s choice. Based on an analysis of the media discourses in response to the post, Xu shows the societal concern shared by many of her participants: “People are discontented with the current situation in China, seeing it as an unfair/unjust society and a society that suppresses and distorts what ought to be natural and genuine in humans from childhood” (p. 100).

    Xu’s ethnographic observations and interviews further highlight the dilemma of the preschool teachers and parents wary of the perceived selfishness of singleton children and attempts to cultivate their generosity in property negotiation yet also concerned about the ideological imposition in distorting the genuineness of children. For instance, Xu records a case where Teacher Tang facilitated a dispute between two boys over a ticket to the “play-zone” by rewarding the child who was willing to give up his ticket with an extra pass to the play-zone. Teacher Xiaolin, however, worried about such a practice of rewarding modesty, that “the next time they [these children] encountered a similar situation, they would propose to compromise first in order to please the teacher and get some potential rewards” (p. 116). Such a concern resonates with the societal critique of the teacher practice that discourages children’s genuine expression and cultivates hypocritical modesty in exchange for good grades.

    To illustrate the children’s moral development in understanding fairness in terms of property distribution, Xu also reports the findings of her experiment with ten children from the preschool across different age groups. Her experiment asked each child to distribute three pears (the biggest, the medium-sized, and the smallest) on behalf of Kong Rong among his older brother, his younger brother, and himself. According to Xu, all children ages four to six except one distributed the pears according to age (the oldest getting the biggest), while only one child in this age group chose the smallest pear for himself. In contrast, the three-year-olds were split in their choices, with some immediately claiming the biggest pear for themselves and others hesitantly choosing the medium-sized one in line with the age order. Xu concludes that the Confucian value of modesty, as prescribed in the original story in which Kong Rong chose the smallest pear for himself, seems alien to most of the preschoolers today. Moreover, “the younger children seemed indeed more ‘genuine’ and less skilled in using ideologically correct answers to please authorities, confronted with the temptation of bigger pears” (p. 117). Xu’s ethnographic observations also reveal the children’s agency as they negotiated property disputes, such as using “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who got the title of “little teachers” for the day.

    Through a cross-disciplinary approach that analyzes a variety of data, including media texts, surveys, field notes, interviews, and experimental evidence, Xu illuminates the complex moral challenges faced by adults in raising a moral child in contemporary China, including competing values between the so-called Chinese versus Western ways of child-rearing, cross-generational conflicts, and the uneasy relationship with teaching traditional values in this modern society. In particular, these adults viewed such traditional values as generosity and modesty as important and necessary for correcting the perceived selfishness of singleton children yet feared for the distortion of children’s genuineness as result of the moral imposition of traditional values. Additionally, through ethnographic observations and controlled experiments, Xu also highlights children’s perspectives and performances in the different moral domains (e.g. generosity, fairness). Yet, while both the moral challenges of adults and the moral agency of children are richly illustrated, it would have been helpful to see a closer integration of this dual focus. For example, in the discussion of children’s developing notions of fairness, further exploration could show how children’s moral development in this domain as measured by experiments relates to the socializing agents’ concern about teaching traditional values of modesty and generosity.

    Nevertheless, with the variety of rich materials presented in the book, The Good Child offers an engaging account of the challenges in the adult’s world and the creativity of the child’s world in the field of moral development in China today. 

    Liu Jiang
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