A few days ago a good friend shared with me an article from the BBC about Chinese boarding kindergartens for 3, 4 and 5 year olds. These are preschools where children actually study, play, eat and live from Monday to Friday. They go back home with their parents on the weekends. According to the article, thousands of young children in the large cities of China attend boarding preschools. Parents pay a fee for this service.
In a culture where the family plays a crucial role, the article argues that demand for these schools could be explained by two factors. First, by a perception that they promote independence and better life skills for children. And second, by a fear that as a result of the one-child policy, a child raised surrounded by the attentions of two parents and four grandparents will grow up spoiled.
The model of the boarding kindergartens was first established in the 1950s to care for war orphans but it became very popular among wealthy families in the mid-90s. The article reports that in recent years, some of these boarding kindergartens have seen a decline in demand. As a result, they are closing their dormitories and transforming themselves to operate like childcare centers, as families’ preferences evolve and more parents become aware of the crucial importance of their presence in their children’s life during early childhood.
This story came to my mind as I was listening to Liu Yandong, the Vice Premier of the Chinese Government and the highest ranking woman in that country’s leadership, at an event on US-China Collaboration on Early Childhood Development at The Brookings Institution, in collaboration with the China Development Research Foundation. With the boarding kindergarten story still fresh in my memory, I was stricken to hear Yandong open her remarks with a phrase that reminded us how much happiness children bring to families. She also spoke about the efforts of the Chinese government in education and nutrition policies aimed at prioritizing the well-being of children.
Liu Yandong was accompanied by another very distinguished woman: Hillary Clinton. She spoke convincingly about early childhood policies not only being “the right thing to do but the smart thing to do”. She also talked about the crucial window of opportunity that is present only during the first years of life for governments and families “to give our youngest citizens the opportunity to start well in life”. She shared some of the work that the Clinton Foundation is doing with the campaign “Too small to fail”, which promotes awareness about the importance of talking to children to close the word gap (a topic we have written about in our blog before). Clinton endorsed the inclusion of early childhood development in the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Following this interesting discussion, there was a panel on early childhood policies as means for poverty reduction and productivity enhancement. Santiago Levy, IDB Vice President of Sectors and Knowledge, offered an explanation of why, despite all the knowledge about the importance of the first years of life as a period where both efficiency and equity can be achieved through public policies, countries struggle to mobilize the levels of investments needed by young children and their families. He said that this has to do with politics and how the interests of children tend to be underrepresented in the electoral process. Jim Wolfenson, the former President of the World Bank, made a case for early childhood development as “an issue of global stability”. His argument was motivated by the fact that we are still on time to invest early and opportunely in the citizens of the world who will be at the peak of their productivity by the year 2050.
As I reflected on this discussion, I realized that the citizens they were talking about haven’t been born yet and the poorest countries of the world will be the home of a significant percentage of these people. Can we aim for them to develop well and to their potential?