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The left-behind children in China (simplified Chinese: 留守儿童; traditional Chinese: 留守兒童; pinyin: liúshǒu'értóng) generally refer to children who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas. In many cases, these children are taken care of by relatives, usually by grandparents or family friends, who remain in the rural regions. These children are often categorized as left-behind given that the rural regions they reside in often lack social and economic infrastructures that tend to be more readily available and accessible in urban areas. Additionally, many of these children face developmental and emotional challenges as a result of the limited interaction with their biological parents. In 2012, left-behind children in China were estimated at 55.1 million. The lack of infrastructure and parental support has the capacity to lead to a host of additional challenges for left-behind children such as quality education, physical well-being, and healthy social relationships. While many scholars focus on the adverse impacts on left-behind children, it is significant to note that the severity of these impacts varies depending on various factors such as age, gender, resources, the frequency of parental presence, and selected caretaker.
Along with the unceasing, in-depth development of the Reform and Open Policy in China, which encourages rural peasants to migrate to coastal areas, helping economic development, and the persistent facilitation of the socialist economy, an increasing number of peasants are choosing to leave their hometowns in search of better paid jobs in urban areas. An additional driver of rural-to-urban migration is the conversion of agricultural land to land used for development, which increases unemployment rates amongst rural workers.
Alongside the increasing unemployment rate and labor demands in cities, rural-to-urban migration was supported by a relaxation in the Hukou system. The Hukou system was enacted in the 1950s in efforts to control the mass movement of rural-urban migrants in China. The Hukou system is a household registration system where families are required to register their families in their place of origin which, in turn, determines their social benefits such as education, housing and medical services. When residing outside of the original place of origin, these benefits and services are not awarded. The Hukou system prevented many families from moving to urban areas until its reform in 1980’s that relaxed the registration system in response to economic and institutional drivers to promote development in China.
Increased labor demand as a response to industrialization as well as the relaxation of policies such as the Hukou system greatly increased the number of rural-urban migrants. In turn, there was an increase in the number of left-behind children who remain in rural areas as their parents left for the city to seek economic opportunity to support their families.
The problem of left-behind children was first reported in national newspapers such as People's Daily, Guangming Daily and China Youth Daily in 2004. It aroused attention from the whole country and researchers began to investigate this social phenomenon.
Left-Behind children in China are generally referred to as children who remain in rural regions under the care of kin members while their parents migrate to urban areas, usually for economic reasons.
Most migrants leave rural regions to seek work in urban areas in industries that requiring lower levels of education and job-related skills such as; manufacturing, construction, mining, and the service industry. Rural-urban migrants with families often leave their children behind given the economic and social restraints involved in migrating with children. Firstly, living in cities cost more than rural areas, making it difficult for parents to support both themselves and their children in urban settings. Additionally, the Hukou system (discussed in History section) prevents rural children from receiving the social benefits in urban regions such as education and healthcare. As a result of these financial and institutional constraints, many children of migrant parents are left-behind in rural areas often under the guardianship of grandparents and extended kin members.
Many scholars argue that the separation that exists between left-behind children and their migrant parents has a significant impact on the children’s psychological health, physical health, educational success, social relationships, and overall well-being. The severity of these impacts is dependent amongst many factors such as; the child’s age and gender, the family’s economic resources, as well as the guardian looking after the children.
The National Bureau of Statistics of China calculated in 2011 that the number of rural-urban migrants has exceeded 221 million, 16.5% of China’s population. The National Demographic Development Strategy Report published in 2007 expects the number of rural-urban migrants to increase to up to 300 million people over the next 20 years. This increase in rural-urban migration is consistent with an increase in migrant children and left-behind children. The most recent census published by The National Bureau of Statistics of China calculated that there were 65,782,879 migrant children and left-behind children ages 0–17 in the year 2015.
Most rural-urban migrants move from areas in China where income levels are generally low such as; Henan, Sichuan, and Anhui, to more developed areas in the southeast such as; Beijing, Jiangsu, Shanghai, Zhejiang, and Fujian. In southwest and northwest China, the circumstances of left-behind children are generally more severe than that of central or eastern China. In these areas, it is common that mothers leave their daughters behind when leaving to work in the city. This phenomenon is theorized to be a result of the traditional Chinese patriarchy that is still very prevalent in Chinese society. In turn, sons are more likely to accompany their migrant parents while daughters are often left behind. Mothers migrating to the cities and leaving daughters behind is further influenced by the pressure from extended family and threats of divorce that are tied to the stigma of giving birth to a female child.
Several studies suggest that left-behind children are more vulnerable to psychological challenges such as anxiety, depression, loneliness and introversion. It is argued that this increased vulnerability amongst left-behind children is likely a result of past trauma, lack of family support, emotional neglect, and overall, lower levels of resilience. These psychological effects often have the capacity to lead to more risk behaviors amongst left-behind children such as; aggression, violence, and substance abuse.
Most of the literature on left-behind children links physiological challenges to the physical separation between the parents and the child. Qiaobing Wu, in her study on psychosocial adjustments of Chinese migrant children, suggests that it is the parent and child interaction that leads to higher levels of self-esteem and life satisfaction as well as lower levels of feelings of depression and aggression. Additional studies suggest that in the early stages of a child’s it is crucial for them to develop a sense of stability and emotional support. Thus, as a result of parental separation in the early development stages of left-behind children's lives, they are often more vulnerable to long-lasting adverse psychological impacts.
Studies have also found that physical well-being is also significantly lower amongst left-behind children. One study on the impact of parental migration on health found that left-behind children were more likely to have an unhealthy diet, lower levels of physical activity, and more likely to abuse substances such as tobacco and alcohol. Guanglun Michael Mu and Yang Hu in their book Living with Vulnerabilities and Opportunities in a Migration Contexts found that these particular habits have contributed to higher rates of stunted growth and unhealthy body weights amongst left-behind children.
Lower levels of overall health reported amongst left-behind children has been linked to poor economic conditions, parenting strategies of caregivers, and knowledge surrounding health. Ye Jingzhong and Pan Lu found in their study “Differentiated childhoods: impacts of rural labor migration on left-behind children in China” found that one of the central factors leading to poor health in left-behind children is the tendency for older caregivers, such as grandparents, to hold an “indifferent attitude” to the children's nutrition. They also found older caregivers were less likely to prepare meals than young parents in rural households. Additionally, they found that the increased work hours during farming season contributed to the lack of effort involved in left-behind children’s overall well-being. It has been argued further that non-parent caregivers often have lower levels of nutrition knowledge than parent caregivers, contributing to left-behind children's lower levels of well-being.
In China, several studies have reported higher rates of school absence, low academic standing, and drop-out rates amongst left-behind children. Additionally, left behind children have been reported to face more difficulties with student-teacher relationships than those who are raised by their parents.
Various reports suggest several reasons why left-behind children face such challenges in education. Firstly, when parents are absent, children often lose additional academic support that parents would normally provide at home. When these parents migrate, it is generally the grandparents who take over this support role who often lack the formal education to provide adequate support. It has also been reported that left-behind children’s participation in housework and farming increase when their parents migrate to urban areas. The time left-behind children spend engaged in household work decreases the time spent on academics, likely contributing to lower levels of academic success and attendance. Additional studies report that left-behind students tend to be distracted in class as a result of feelings of missing their parents, further disrupting their academics as well as their relationships with their teachers.
The separation between parents and left-behind children also poses challenges to the child’s social relationships. Several studies indicate that left-behind children are more likely to be introverted than those who grow up with their parents. Guanglun Michael Mu and Yang Hu understand this introversion as a result of feelings of abandonment and anguish left-behind children face when their parents migrate. While left-behind children may have friends and family around them, it is argued that it is not enough to replace the crucial bond between child and parent.
According to research in 2014, 49.2 percent of left-behind children were suffering major injuries, compared to 42 percent for normal children. The percentage of children slashed, burned, attacked by animals, and injured by falling were also more frequent in these children by 5.3, 1.6, 3.9 and 3.1 percentage points respectively. They also account for 61% of new admitted patients in child hospitals, and 55.2% of child sexual harassment cases in China. Bijie city in Guizhou Province has been hit hard by incidents involving left-behind children. In 2012, 5 left-behind children died from carbon dioxide inhalation after lighting a fire in rubbish bin for warmth. In 2014, 12 girls were threatened and raped by their school teacher. 11 of them were left-behind children. In 2015, 4 left-behind children living under domestic violence attempted suicide by drinking pesticide.
According to a small-scale research, 37% of left-behind children aged 14–16 thought of committing suicide, 12% once planned to commit suicide and 6.3% once attempted suicide but failed. Children have more than 60% chance of considering suicide when either father or mother left home for work.
The criminal rate for juveniles has increased 13% annually during recent years. The crime rate of left behind children is ~70% higher than that of other juveniles.
While many studies highlight the negative consequences faced by left-behind children, they also point out that the severity of these consequences is dependent on many factors such as age, gender, the family’s economic resources, the frequency of communication with migrant parents, and the guardian responsible for taking care of the child.
The age of a child has been linked to the severity of physiological consequences left-behind children face. For example, it has been reported that children left behind at the age of 3 were associated with more emotional symptoms while children left at the age of 9 were linked to a decrease in pro-social behaviors. Additionally, children who were left in early stages in life reported lower levels of life satisfaction and less contact with their migrant parents. These studies suggest that the younger a child is, the more likely they are to suffer psychologically than left-behind children left at an older age.
The social roles and expectations linked to being male versus female in rural China has a significant impact on the left-behind child's experience. For example, it is common for caregivers of left-behind children to place more restrictions on female children's social activities in comparison to male children. This is theorized as an attempt to protect the female children given that females are considered as more vulnerable than males in many rural Chinese societies. Also tied to gender roles, it has been reported that the level of housework required by left-behind female children increases when their parents migrate, replacing males as the main caretaker in the household. Additionally, female children face different psychological effects of being left-behind than their male counterparts. While females are more likely to suffer emotionally from abandonment, males are more likely to elicit behavioral issues. These studies suggest that the gender roles placed on left-behind children as well as female and males contrasting psychological responses have the capacity to affect the way they experience being left-behind differently.
Resources such as family finances, access to education and social environments play a significant role in left-behind children’s experience. For example, it has been reported that low economic conditions often result in lower quality care of left-behind children. When caregivers lack the financial resources to afford school fee’s, nutritious food, and other basic needs, left-behind children are likely to face challenges with well-being. Additionally, lower-income households are more likely to require left-behind children to engage in farm work, removing them from social and academic activities. Education is also a central resource that influences left-behind children’s experience. School is considered to be a dominant institution in the early stages of a child’s life as they often rely on social relationships with peers and teachers for advice and support. Formal education is also seen as a social mobility tool for many rural children who utilize it as an opportunity to apply to college, obtain a job, and rid their ‘rural’ status. Additionally, left-behind children often rely on community relationships in which are theorized to foster growth and increase the availability of resources, likely to benefit the left-behind child’s development.
Studies have found that after parents migrate they rarely return home to rural areas to visit given the expense of travel and working time restraints. In most cases, parents return once a year, and in some cases do not return at all. Scholars argue that these long durations of parental absence can have a negative impact on cognitive function and lead to adverse emotional symptoms. When migrant parents are away, the main form of communication, if at all, is over the telephone. While telephone calls increase parental presence between left-behind children and their parents, these phone calls often neglect to touch on emotional needs of the child and are mainly centered around the child’s school performance. It has also been found that it is common for parents to send home material gifts to left-behind children in an attempt to maintain and strengthen the parents and child's emotional connection. In Ye Jingzhong and Pan Lu’s study, they reported that 83% of left-behind children had received gifts from their parents while they were away. Given the reported psychological benefits of parental presence amongst left-behind children, one might suggest that the frequency of which communication and material items are exchanged between migrant parents and left-behind children has a significant impact their left-behind experience and overall well-being.
The responsibility of taking care of left-behind children often falls in the hands of grandparents and extended kin members. Studies show that the child-rearing strategies practised by these caretakers has a direct influence the left-behind child’s experience. For example, it has been found that older kin are less likely to have the educational background to support left-behind children academically. Additionally, older kin’s more traditional ways of living and heavy workload has been linked to poor nutrition and physical wellbeing in left-behind children. While grandparents are usually the primary candidates for taking care of left-behind children, occasionally caretaking falls in the hands of extended kin or neighbors in the community. It has been argued that when left-behind children are under the care of people other than their parents or grandparents, they are more inclined to experience emotional and physical trauma. Additionally, it is argued that being under the care of non-kin increases left-behind children’s risk of behavioral issues and psychological distress. Thus, studies of left-behind children suggest that depending on who is left to care for left-behind children when their parents migrate has a significant impact on their psychological and physical well-being.