BEIJING: China has long been known for its highly disciplined approach to education, but parents and lawmakers alike are beginning to question the wisdom of putting so much pressure on young children.
China's tough approach to bringing up children was made famous worldwide last year by the Chinese-American professor Amy Chua, who told in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" how she insisted on top marks from her kids.
Her description of making her young children study for hours and take compulsory music lessons shocked readers in the West, but not in China, where pupils spend long hours in class and strict parenting is common.
Even four-olds put in eight hours a day and for older children, the school day can be as much as 12 hours long, and they can typically expect between two and four hours of homework on top of that.
But Chinese lawmaker and professor Zhu Yongxin told AFP the country's parliament was actively considering during its 10-day annual session, which began last week, changes to the way Chinese children are educated.
"The Tiger Mother or Wolf Dad models are not appropriate for our system," said Zhu, referring to Chua and a Chinese father who said that regular beatings helped his children get into one of the country's top universities.
"I certainly think that Chinese education can be more relaxed. Education should be a happy experience," he told AFP on the sidelines of the National People's Congress (NPC), which ends on Wednesday.
Chinese media have cited numerous examples of extreme parenting in recent months, most recently a man dubbed the Eagle Dad, who forced his young son to run almost naked in a bitterly cold New York.
The father, He Liesheng, said he was attempting to toughen up his son, but video footage of the incident that he had posted on the Internet caused an online storm of criticism.
Zhu said Chinese parents were now seeking what he termed a "less painful" education for their children -- partly as a result of the one-child rule, and partly due to increased access to Western schools.
"Since China has reformed and opened up -- particularly with regards to foreign education and learning -- schools are now more open to introducing an innovative thinking culture," he said.
In recent years, China has seen a major expansion of alternative teaching establishments such as those that operate under the educational principles of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.
Those schools -- known in China as Waldorf schools -- begin teaching reading, writing and maths at a later stage than most traditional establishments, and place a greater emphasis on other skills such as music and drawing.
The first was set up in China in 2004, and another six opened last year.
Yu Shufen decided to send her seven-year-old daughter, Duo Duo, to a Waldorf school on the outskirts of Beijing as she believes there is too much pressure in the state system.
"It can be too intense for the children if there are many lessons and exams," she told AFP.
"Their physical and mental development will suffer under this environment. So I never thought to take my daughter to a state school."
China's rapidly expanding private education sector will be worth $80 billion this year, up from $60 billion in 2009, according to research by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
According to Beijing-based parenting expert and author Yanhong Wheeler, parents are beginning to change their attitudes towards learning in response to China's changing role in the world.
"In recent years, China has developed a more important role in global affairs, and so it needs to develop a more diverse range of talents among its young, talents which have an independent and creative spirit," she said.
Wheeler also said that as parents became less dependent on their children in their autumn years, they could afford to offer them more independence.
"More and more Chinese parents don't need their children to take care of them in their old age. Instead, they can let their children be free and independent."
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