The name Yanhong Wheeler may not mean much to the English-speaking community, but here in China, she’s the controversial new voice in the push to change traditional parenting practices.Better known to her Chinese readership as Xiao Wu or “Wee Witch,” Wheeler is a Beijing-born US citizen who’s married to a New Zealander. They are currently raising their two children (ages 10 and 7) in Beijing, where Wheeler has developed a career as a writer, lecturer, La Leche League leader and parenting expert. Her seven Chinese-language books, including the best-sellers Of Love and Liberty and Boundaries and Disciplines, shine a spotlight on unpopular concepts such as breast-feeding and putting less academic pressure on children. For a tiny woman, Wheeler’s words pack a giant punch and have influenced thousands of families. beijingkids sat down with Wee Witch to find out how she’s cast her spell over China’s parenting establishment.
What inspired you to write parenting books for a Chinese audience?
I started writing as a mother – a cross-cultural mother with a cross-cultural family raising cross-cultural babies. Soon enough everyone was asking me, “Why don’t you write in these magazines? Why don’t you write these books? Why don’t you go on television?” Gradually, I became what they call an “expert.” I still don’t regard myself as an expert. I have access to more resources and I can bridge the gap between Western and Chinese parenting concepts.
Have you faced any resistance from the Chinese community?
Oh yeah! My personal feeling is that I’m very well received and there are faithful followers. Most of the criticism is under the heading, “This is Western,” but I think that’s just narrow-mindedness. There’s no distinctly American baby behaviour versus Chinese baby behaviour. They all want to nurse and they throw a tantrum when their needs aren’t satisfied. I think people from every nation would agree with that. No one is 100 percent correct 100 percent of the time. The books I read: If there are parts I don’t like, I leave it there. I don’t attack the author and say “You’re too American, [or]you’re too Australian!”
Why do you think such resistance exists?
Traditionally, Chinese parents depend on their children in their old-age: Their children are their pension plan. You’re dependent on the children and therefore you must control the children. The best way of controlling someone is to convince that person that they are dependent on you. For the younger generation- the emerging middle class – they have their own pension plan; they can depend on themselves financially. There’s a group of parents who can afford to let their children be independent.
Why do you think the traditional Chinese way of raising children needs to change?
Times have changed. Whether we like it or not, China is playing a bigger role on the global stage. We need people and talents to manage that role. Chinese education doesn’t breed leaders, thinkers and innovators. Also, it’s not a way of raising the whole person.
Can you explain some of the pressures Chinese parents face?
Some parents say, “I look at what my child is going through and I know what you say makes sense but I’m torn apart, I’m in pain.” But pain is a good thing; when you have pain, you start thinking. One of the criticisms directed towards me is, “Oh, but we live in China and what you say is very nice but we have to fit into the environment, therefore we have to put our children through the grindstone.” Why must you fit into this environment? Is it necessary? Is it healthy to bring up your own child to think, “I must cut off my own corners to fit in?” Or is it healthier to bring up a child and have him believe in himself, to think “I don’t have to fit into anything, I’m capable of creating my own environment and changing the world.” It takes a lot of courage for parents to turn their backs on the system and go down the alternative path. Look at me, I’m less than 100 pounds and I’ve influenced hundred of mothers. Don’t ever underestimate yourself.
Does the Chinese education system have the capacity to change?
Yes, absolutely. Change will happen very slowly and will start from grassroots. I think the government knows it has problems. The former Vice Minister of Education Dr. Wei Yu is very cutting edge, and if you read her blog, you know that the Ministry of Education knows there’s a problem [and that]they have the solutions. But there are missing links between the government and the parents. The thing is, Chinese education doesn’t really encourage independent thinking and it doesn’t encourage initiative. It’s all passively waiting for change, waiting for someone to put something on the plate and give it to you.
Do you think Western education philosophies could adapt anything from the Chinese system?
I got involved with Steiner education; this is a pedagogy that I really believe in. So, even in the mainstream Western system there are things I am not satisfied with. But I take initiative to change, to influence. Once a week I go to my daughter’s class to lead some activities from the Steiner pedagogy. What the children achieve is phenomenal. Education is not a gift from the grown-ups to the children; it’s a gift from the children to the grown-ups. Mainstream education, especially Chinese, is: I’m the teacher and you’re a blank piece of paper; swallow what I give you and then regurgitate it. Children are a rich resource of ideas, of imagination, of creativity. My task [as the teacher]is to protect that bank of resources and to help you blossom. There are many approaches, many ways of doing that.
So there’s nothing that the West can learn from the Chinese system?
Have you received any positive feedback from parents who’ve applied your techniques?
I’ve heard many positive things, [but]I don’t take credit for it. If you practice [my techniques]and there’s an immediate improvement in the parent-child relationship, it turns your life around. Little things like telling bedtime stories: You tell them, you don’t read them – you make them up! One parent said, “I used to have to read 23 books before my child would go to bed. The other night, I started telling a story and by the second time, she fell asleep!” I wouldn’t continue this if it wasn’t working. But I’m not alone. I may be more visible because I’m married to a Kiwi and have cross-cultural children, but there are many other educators who share my feelings. I’m not a lone voice.