BEIJING — Two weeks ago, a preschool in Shanghai was exposed for abusing toddlers. One young child was brutally thrown around the floor, while another was forced to eat spicy mustard. Then, last week, a kindergarten in Beijing run by the Red, Yellow and Blue (RYB) Education company, was found to have been injecting children with unknown substances, as well as giving them unauthorized pills. It was not until certain children were discovered to have needle marks that parents were alerted.
Sexual abuse was suspected after some toddlers told their parents that they had been taken to a room and stripped naked in front of a naked man who claimed to be a doctor who needed to check their bodies.
Not only has this news sparked outrage, but it has also challenged people's assumptions. It has long been thought that child abuse cases occurred in remote and poor rural areas. Yet not only do most of these children come from Beijing's most privileged households, but the RYB education company was recently listed on the New York Stock Exchange, overseeing nearly 2,000 kindergartens and nursery schools across China.
This has led to a rapid disintegration of trust in preschools for millions of Chinese families. China's social media is filled with parental tales of anxiety and anger. A mother who was about to put her child in a prestigious nursery asked whether video monitoring will be installed to allow parents to watch and track their toddlers (and the teachers) at any time.
That child abuse in schools has come to light cannot be explained away as just a few random and extreme cases. Instead it is an indication that such problems in China's preschool education system are very real. But we must also acknowledge that such a situation obviously cannot be solved overnight.
This collapse of trust reminds me of the troubled state of China's doctor-patient relationship. People need doctors, yet they don't have confidence in them. Patients are always suspicious of doctors hoodwinking them, while the doctors are also defensive that they will encounter troublesome patients and/or their families. The general lack of transparency of the medical system leads to Chinese patients who tend to be too over-sensitive.
Even if cameras are installed everywhere, they will only expose the most blatant violence.
All of this is very similar to what is happening now to the relation between parents and kindergartens. As noted by one parent, who appeared quite rational amid the current torrent of anger, kindergarten teacher is a profession that requires emotional access. It's not a standardized or mechanized job. If parents are forever suspicious of teachers and the teachers are wary of parents, how can children possibly obtain the best, most open care and education?
The question is worth pondering. Video surveillance seems an extreme response. Without thinking about the problems that come with toilets and the like, even if cameras are installed everywhere, they are only to expose the most blatant violence.
Violence that falls in grey areas – such as screaming, threatening children, or more subtle cruelty — won't be found through videos. Yet such treatment can be no less harmful for children.
The paradox of this scandal is that our society's criterion of what jeopardizes children's interests is actually too low. People are outraged only when schools have breached the most extreme line into blatant violence. In fact, from the perspective of children's interests, a society's belief that adults are superior to children paves the way for all subsequent mistreatment. And for this reason, a collapse of trust between families and nurseries is very worrying indeed.
The special occupational nature of early childhood education requires a professional spirit and quality training, but also an emotional intelligence. Nursery school and kindergarten teachers must know how to respond to the very special reality of life among small children — and also know how to interact with their parents. Only if the family-school relationship is on solid ground can the seeds of goodness grow from the first stopping point on the journey from home to society.
Ultimately I could join the public's appeal for equipping kindergartens with cameras, but I do not think it can solve all the problems. Rather, our society has to form a new consensus. We should allow zero tolerance for any form of abuse or improper treatment of students, or having to follow unwritten rules of bribing teachers with gifts or money in the hope that they will treat their children better.
Our educators, families, the press as well as public opinion should strive for rebuilding trust so that our children can live in a harmonious environment. That's the only way they will learn to trust others in the world as they grow older. This is not naivety but a basic cornerstone of mental health. There's no education without love. And no education system can thrive without the most basic level of trust.
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