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For migrant children who return home, how do they cope with vagabond childhoods?

After winter vacation, Tangtang, a girl in grade 4, is going to experience a drastic change in her life—she will return to her hometown to attend school.

Born in Shanghai, Tangtang’s hometown is in Shanxi province. After spending over 10 years in Shanghai, her parents have failed to obtain a Shanghai hutou (registered permanent residence) which would allow Tangtang to attend school in the east China metropolis. For Tangtang to adapt to the teaching environment back home at an early date, her parents reluctantly sent her back home to be with her grandparents. This decision caused her to become a part of a special group that is receiving much attention recently--"migrant children who return home".

Migrant children who return home are children with experiences living in cities, but have to return to their hometowns for various reasons. Our country has a huge migrant population. According to a sample survey of 1% of the national population in 2015, in the high school stage, approximately 15% of stay-at-home children have experienced such relocation.

Between "migrating" (moving with parents who are working away from home) and “staying-at-home" (live at home while parents are working away), these children constantly have difficulties changing their identities. When "returning home" becomes a new decision for migrant families who move between rural and urban areas, for these children, interpersonal communication, school integration and other hardships come one after another.

"Unaccustomed to the climate of a new place", migrant children who return home face many difficulties of adaptation

"In recent years, due to policies of population control in major cities, occurrences of rural migrant workers returning home, impacts from the policy restrictions on taking high school and college entrance examinations outside of one’s hometown, the problem of migrant children who return home became more prominent," states Song Yingquan, associate research fellow at Peking University China Institute for Educational Finance Research. From migration to return, the root cause lies in the many macro-social policies in place.

In the more than 10 families interviewed, "unable to attend a public school" and "parents cannot work and the family have to go home together" are the top two reasons for migrant children returning to their hometown.

In public perceptions, "experience outweighs knowledge." However, in reality, previous experiences of living in cities and having these cultural capitals not only had no positive effect when children return home, but can even bring negative impacts.

A large-scale research on 17,000 rural boarding-school students by Song Yingquan demonstrated that compared with other children, migrant children who return home have worse grades and a higher chance of grade retention, as high as 22%. In psychological development, migrant children who return home have high risks of having low self-esteem and becoming depressed. They have a 64.26% chance of suffering from depression.

"Teachers speak with a thick accent. After class, my classmates are used to speaking in dialects. I can’t understand and they would make fun of me," Qingqing, an 11-year-old girl, who returned home one year ago from Shanghai to Anhui province. Aside from mal-adaptation to the living environment, language barrier is also giving her trouble in interpersonal communication. The percentage of migrant children who return home and become stay-at-home ones is 80%. Without proper emotional support, how can they hold up steady lives later on?

Inadequate school education and family care are major reasons for migrant children’s troubles after returning home.

The family of Junjun, a grade 5 boy, is faced with new concerns: half a year ago, Junjun's parents, who work in Shanghai, sent him back to Anhui and kept him in the care of his grandparents. However, after only one semester, Junjun started hating school, "he goes out to pick fights every day, his grandparents can't do anything about it."

After returning home, most migrant children would be left home by parents seeking employment away from home. Many of them won’t be able to see parents except on the weekends or during Spring Festival holidays. Such childhoods without proper emotional support cannot let children hold up steady lives afterward.

Through investigations, Song found that after returning home, about 80% of these children become stay-at-home children who seldom see their parents. In evaluating "the degree of attentiveness by teachers", children who returned home also rated lower than other children by 5 percentage points. Many researches indicate simultaneously that inadequate school education and family care are a major cause of the problems for children who return home. It can even be a significant reason for the decline of their cognitive abilities.

"To children who return home, the biggest challenge is the change in family structure," says Song. "Living in the city, they are accompanied by their parents, they can communicate school or life problems with them and receive relevant guidance. Yet, after returning home, the significant change in family structure creates huge mental pressure for children, and an adverse effect on their development."

Neither have teachers, who are the most important external variable affecting students' growth, given this special group enough attention and guidance. "Now, teachers don't teach as fun as before. We just keep explaining and doing exercises in class. I also don't know how to make friends," Qingqing told the reporter. She used to reach out to teachers for help, but what she received was only the advice of "focus on your studies". Afterwards, when she feels grievances, she would "suppress them in her heart."

To prevent migrant children from going to the extremes, the fundamental solution is to break the policy barriers

Song and his research team summarized three characteristics of the current group of migrant children who returned home: the scale is becoming larger, their age is increasingly younger, and the view of the world is increasingly precocious and adult-like. "In our interviews, some children would attribute the reasons why people can study in big cities to if they have money or not. With money, you can stay in cities through buying housing or rent long-term places. Without money, you have to go home."

"The issue of migrant children who return home has deep institutional reasons. The fundamental solution to this issue is to gradually break the barrier that prevents migrant children from attending school in cities. We need to help them have opportunities to attend school in cities, so that they don’t have to go back home." Song believes the lack of fundamental breakthroughs in the current household registration system and restrictions on non-local students taking high school and college entrance exams in megacities are the crux in causing large numbers of migrant children returning home. If this problem is ignored in the long-term, it will not only be a loss for their families, but our society may pay a tremendous price in the future.

Contributed by: Deng Hui, reporter of Guangming Daily; the names of certain interviewees are pseudonyms

Translated by Zhang Junye

[ Editor: Zhang Zhou ]