5 Ways Parenting in China Is Incredibly Different from the U.S.

Image Source: Tatum Hawkins via Instagram
Image Source: Tatum Hawkins via Instagram

I knew moving from the U.S. to Shanghai, China would be an enormous change for our family. I thought about the differences in food, language, and big city life vs. quiet suburbanism in South Orange County, California. What I didn’t expect, however, was how differently Chinese locals approached parenting and what a truly cultural thing “parenting” really is!

My girls were 2 years old and 8 months old when we landed in Shanghai on a very rainy night after 14 hours in the air. We had the baby in an infant car seat during the plane ride, and as we carried her still strapped inside to a waiting minivan, our driver, a local and as friendly as could be, proceeded to take my baby out of her car seat.

“Oh no, no, no, no,” I said, exasperated.“She stays inside!” as I automatically, and a bit frantically, felt for metal anchors in the seat’s crevices. Nothing. A couple of seat belt buckles also seemed to be missing. How odd! Of course, the driver couldn’t understand a word I had said nor the reason for my sudden state of panic.

“Don’t they know what car seats are?” I asked my husband who had situated himself in the back seat all ready to go with our groggy toddler — on his lap. Poor guy just shrugged.

At this point, all mommy alarms started going off. Where in the world have we relocated our family to where seat belts and car seats seemed so … foreign? My cheeks got hot, and I could feel my head on the verge of bursting into flames.

I would soon learn that in China, the general belief is that a mother’s (or father’s) arms are the safest place for a baby. As lovely as a thought that was, I wasn’t nearly convinced when it came to riding in a moving vehicle!

Here are four more ways that as an American mom living in Shanghai, I’ve noticed parenting is very different.

1. When every child is an only child, it’s all “attachment parenting”

Many people don’t realize that China’s radical one-child policy was still in force when we moved here! When I pushed the girls around in my gigantic double stroller, I’d get so many stares and head-turns, like, “What is that thing?” Or when I’d be out running errands with my baby strapped to my chest and my toddler holding my hand, strangers would point excitedly at me saying, “Liang ge hei zi!” meaning, “You have two children!” Who would have thought something as simple as having two kids would turn me into an overnight celebrity?

Just last fall, however, in a monumental government change, the one-child policy was lifted, but only to allow one more child per family, a two-child policy. Most locals seemed to rejoice over the announcement, but imagine the ingrained cultural impact of the world’s most populous nation limited to one child per family.

From my observations, when people are deprived the rights over their own reproduction and allowed just one baby, that child is treated extra special, as if the entire future and world depended on him or her. Chinese citizens are much less concerned about freedom as they are about stability, which is what their child is expected to provide as they age. It’s a funny concept to name a “style” of parenting here when there seems to be only one: invest every ounce of your attention and resources into your child, coddle their every move, and acquiesce every request to the extent that you can. Add two pairs of grandparents who often live with or nearby the families, resulting in six doting adults to one “little emperor.” Fascinating!

2. Diaper-less babies

Whoa, are Chinese babies potty-trained sooner, you ask? Well … kind of.

Instead of diapers, many babies simply wear “split pants” revealing a pair of chubby, dimply cheeks. The purpose is not to show off that squishiness, but for easy poopin’ and peein’, of course! Oftentimes not in a toilet, however.

On the sidewalks? Yes.

On the subway train? It happens.

Other public places that are not a bathroom? Yep.

Isn’t this a bit unsanitary? Definitely.

The trick, this catch that I haven’t quite figured out yet, is how these babies seem to know when to go. It’s like the babies are trained to go on demand. I have never, ever seen anyone holding a baby with split pants all of a sudden going, “Oh shoot! I just got peed on!” It’s absolutely mind-boggling.

So, with diapers in China being sort of a luxury item (read: rare and expensive), I made sure to pack enough diapers in our shipment to last until both my girls were potty-trained by a guesstimated 3 years of age. Yes, I made a lot of Costco trips! As I write this, we have been in Shanghai for 30 months, and I can proudly say we still haven’t run out of diapers. I really hope my youngest, who just turned 3 years old, gets the memo and potty-trains soon because we are on our second-to-last box … or maybe I should have put her in those split pants from day one.

3. Dressing and grooming

Chinese baby fashion is definitely one-of-a-kind. Aside from split pants, which are very notable indeed, another head-scratcher includes the layers upon layers of clothing. I think we can all agree that nothing is cuter than a baby bundled up in a snowsuit, but in May when the sun is warm and shining? Oh, for sure! Chinese babies also never, ever go barefoot. Heat escapes through one’s feet, and the always concerned parents and grandparents believe that too much heat escaping will make the baby sick.

Early on in our move, my husband and I got in an argument once over how I had forgotten to put socks on our baby daughter, and we had just left the house. He wanted to go back inside to get socks because he feared some elderly Chinese woman scolding him, and I insisted that we’d be fine and no one would notice. Well, I was wrong, because literally every elderly Chinese woman noticed and we have not forgotten socks since.

There is also a peculiar habit of shaving babies’ heads, both the boys and girls. I asked around my Chinese friends and apparently the parents believe it will make the hair grow in thicker and healthier. This custom is even treated like a celebratory occasion when the babies turn 1 month, 3 months or 100 days old.

4. Affordable, angelic “ayi”

The biggest difference to me about parenting in Shanghai vs. parenting in the U.S. is the idea that mothers aren’t meant to “do it all,” to accomplish everything and run ourselves ragged in the process. We need help. We want help. And that’s OK! This is not about calling the dads out to pitch in more; this is about those long hours during the day while he’s at work (as is the case for most expat families here) and you are feeling totally alone, overwhelmed, and inadequate.

Mothers in Shanghai, both foreigners and locals alike, have easy and affordable access to their very own angel helpers, an “ayi.” Having an ayi is a very common and traditional practice in China, as well as in other Asian countries. To the families here, it is essentially like welcoming an extra member of the family, which is why I love that ayi translates to “auntie” in Mandarin.

So during the day, ayi and I tackle this stay-at-home motherhood thing together. She cleans my apartment while I play with my kids — without feeling rushed. She’s home folding laundry while I grocery shop — by myself. We take turns making dinner — I love her fried rice, she loves my pasta salad. Ayi even babysits on the weekends so my husband and I can go on dates and feel young again. As a result of my angel, I feel like a much happier, better mom because I am more relaxed and more patient than ever. Game changer!

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