The young 'chicks' who have no time to kill

Lu Feiran
Every parent wants kids to succeed, but some are going to new extremes to make that happen. How much do smother hens stifle childhood development?
Lu Feiran

Yale University professor Amy Chua coined the term “tiger moms” in her popular 2011 memoir that described authoritarian Chinese parents who relentlessly pressure their children to become high achievers.

But now that global stereotype seems to be eclipsed by an even fiercer breed of tiger in a parenting trend that has come to be called jiwa, or “baby chicks.”

Jiwa has become a common phrase on almost every online parenting group. It doesn’t mean obedient, timid children. Rather, it refers to children whose lives are crammed to the hilt with studies and activities that would tire out most adults.

Another Chinese buzzword — dajixue, or “infused with chicken blood” — comes into the play in this latest parenting trend.

In its slang sense, dajixue refers to someone who is particularly stimulated and passionate. It originated from a 1960s scandal, when a group of traditional medicine enthusiasts claimed that injections of rooster blood would make a person stronger and healthier.

For parents, the best way to carry out dajixue is to ensure that their children don’t waste a single minute of their lives.

“The term jiwa is common on online parenting chat groups, from kindergarten to high school,” says Zhou Ying, father of a son who will enter primary school this fall. “To some parents, it’s never too early to cultivate jiwa.”

Zhou says that he first heard the term from colleagues, and then did a search for it on WeChat. He found hundreds of public accounts dedicated to jiwa, either sharing parents’ experiences or sharing teaching materials. That’s how he got involved in jiwa-style chat groups.

That experience was eye-opening.

“There is a mother who shared with us her 5-year-old son’s daily schedule,” Zhou says. “It felt like some kind of simulation game ... you know, where you could cultivate a baby into a strong character.”

According to the mother, who goes by the online name Joyce, the young boy needs to learn 27 new Chinese characters a week, solve 60 mathematics problems, learn English through an online app, memorize ancient Chinese poems, learn to play ball games and practice piano. On weekends, he has an extra painting class, an English class and a mathematics class.

“Joyce says that the boy still has time for himself if he ‘finishes the schedule’ soon enough,” Zhou says. “But I don’t believe any adult could even manage that.”

Joyce, however, was regaled by many parents, who asked her for advice on implementing jiwa.

Of course, her prescription isn’t a one-size-fits-all. Joyce and her husband spend more than 200,000 yuan (US$30,500) on kindergarten fees and extracurricular classes. Joyce herself is a stay-at-home mother who devotes almost all her time to her son.

“The atmosphere in the chat group is very anxiety-provoking yet tempting,” Zhou says. “I was never a jiwa supporter, but sometimes I can’t help wondering if I should stimulate my son more, to give him some ‘chicken blood.’”

According to Zhou, a lot of terms are derived from jiwa when parents talk about their children.

There is niuwa, or “bull frogs,” which refers to all-round children who are good at almost everything. There is qingwa, or “frogs,” which refers to children from ordinary families with limited budgets.

There is suji, or “soy chickens,” which refers to children who have special talents like piano or painting. But that’s fading a bit in popularity as pushy parents now fancy skating, equestrian and fencing lessons for their children.

And then there is ziji, or “self-jiwa,” which refers to parents who are intellectual enough to teach their children at home and don’t need to pay for extracurricular classes.

And when a child succeeds in getting enrolled in a top high school or college, it’s called shang’an, which means “reaching the shore and escaping misery.”

Although Zhou says he won’t be a jiwa parent, another parent, 43-year-old Jasmine Li, is completely obsessed with the idea.

Mother to two daughters, one in middle school and the other in primary school, Li’s aim is to get the girls enrolled in Ivy League universities in the United States. Her life’s work is paving the road toward that goal.

Her daughters attend costly international bilingual schools and also take extracurricular classes in English and other disciplines. She and her husband make enough money to afford all the academic frills.

“I have joined a chat group full of Chinese parents who have emigrated abroad,” she says. “And they are as passionate as parents still in China.”

Li admits that she is sometimes worried about applying too much pressure on her daughters, but she says she is convinced it will all be worthwhile someday.

But Li’s worry is not all ill-founded. Study shows that the incidence of mental illness, such as depression, is increasing rapidly among Chinese children.

Last year, the nation’s public health authorities required schools to include depression screening into physical exams for students. In recent decades, about 1.3 percent of juveniles were diagnosed with clinical depression, and many more cases go undiagnosed.

Some children don’t respond well to jiwa parents. The slang term bunaiji, or “jiwa intolerance,” often pops up in parent chat groups, but many parents blame their children and not themselves.

“Success never comes easily,” Li explains. “Some children might not understand it now and even bear a grudge, but one day, when they ‘reach the shore,’ they will be grateful that they didn’t waste one single minute of their lives.”

Tan Suyi, a therapist specializing in childhood behavior, says some parents simply transfer their own anxieties to their children, completely neglecting what their children truly want or need.

“Anxiety spreads like flu among parents in these chat groups, and then, depression may also spread like flu among children in schools,” Tan says. “I think parents should just quit those groups, sit down with their children, and truly listen to them instead of foisting their own wishes on young kids.”

Professor Zhang Yuqing at the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences agrees that jiwa parenting doesn’t really help achieve what the parents want.

“When parents see shortcomings in their children, they shouldn’t pile on extra lessons or berate the children for not working hard enough,” he says.

“On the contrary,” he explains, “they need to look for ways to improve their children’s interests and study habits. Once children know how to study, they don’t need jiwa parenting to achieve better performance.”

Special Reports