Adjustment Problems When Children Sent to China Return to U.S.

In a kindergarten in Fujian Province, China, many children are U.S. born and raised by grandparents. (Photo courtesy of parents via World Journal)

In a kindergarten in Fujian Province, China, many children are U.S. born and being raised by grandparents. (Photo courtesy of parents via World Journal)

[Editor’s note: It may take a village to raise a child. But for Chinese immigrant parents who are busy at work and don’t have extended families nearby to help, sending newborns back to China is a popular choice. The children are raised there by relatives, often grandparents, then reunited with their parents when they reach school age. But sometimes it’s a difficult adjustment for both the children and the parents. The World Journal took a close look at this phenomenon on March 21. Here is a roundup of a few related stories, translated by Rong Xiaoqing from Chinese.]


A Chinese parent, Ms. Gao, shared her story with reporter Yingzi Yin: 

Ms. Gao has been living in the U.S. for almost 20 years. At first, she and her husband Mr. Chan worked in a restaurant in Flushing. They have two sons born in the U.S. Ms. Gao said she and her husband were too busy to take care of the kids. They sent the older son back to their parents living in their hometown in Changle County, Fuzhou City when the child was less than two months old. Two years later, the younger son was born and was also sent back to China for the same reason. The couple worked hard to send money as well as baby supplies like milk formula and diapers back home periodically.

The older son was brought back to the U.S. when he was five to enroll in P.S. 32 in Bayside, Queens. The younger son was brought back when he was three to reunite with the parents, thanks to a policy of P.S. 32 that gives priority to the siblings of its students who apply for its pre-K program.

Ms. Gao said the restaurant job was very time consuming. If she had to take care of her children, she would have to quit. But the family couldn’t afford to lose her income. “If not under financial pressure, who would like to be separated from their loved ones? They were so young then. But in order to survive, the only choice we had was to send them back to China and then bring them back here when they were at school age,” she said.

Language barriers and the differences in life and education styles between China and the U.S. made the early days bumpy for the children when they were brought back here. In addition, Ms. Gao found the separation also affected the relationship between the children and their parents. It took her and her husband a long while to get close to the children right after they came back. They tried hard to take the children to the zoos and the parks whenever they could in order to smooth the relationship.

Ms. Gao also pointed out: “Another issue for these kids who were raised up by their grandparents for a few years is that they could be spoiled. We Chinese often say ‘grandparents love the kids more than their parents.’ Kids raised by grandparents can form some bad habits which are hard to correct.”


And when such kids enter school, the problems can be more serious. Reporter Lei Zhu interviewed some Chinese parents who spoke anonymously:

A Chinese mother said she and her husband were too busy so they had to send their daughter to the grandparents in China soon after she was born. When the girl was brought back to the U.S. at five, the mother found she lacked basic living skills. She didn’t know how to tie her shoelaces, and couldn’t even eat by herself because she had been fed by the grandparents all the time. The mother had to press the daughter hard to help her become a better kid.

But once the child sucked her own fingers so hard they turned purple at school and she told the teacher the mark was left by her mom who beat her. She didn’t realize what a mistake she made until the staff from the Administration for Children Services went to their home to do the investigation and planned to take her away from home.

Another couple living in Brooklyn had to send their baby son back to their hometown in Hubei Province. When the child was brought back at age three, the parents found he didn’t have good manners. When he went to school later, things got worse. He always made trouble at school. He often flipped over the plates of classmates during lunch deliberately, and even flashed a knife in front of two girls.

The couple learned a lesson from this. When they got the second child, they kept the child with them. The second child who is four now behaves well, a big difference from the brother.


Children like these are not exceptional cases. Reporter Mengzi Gao learned how common the problem is:

Tuo Zhang, a student of Columbia University School of Social Work who works as an intern at the Asian Outreach Program at The Child Center of NY, spends a lot of time with Chinese students who were referred by their schools to get counseling. Among the students she works with, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder are common with the boys, and emotional and social problems are common with the girls. All of these children had been sent back to their grandparents in China.

Zhang said these children often don’t speak English at first, and it’s hard for them to make teachers understand their needs when they are enrolled in school in the U.S. Their parents often work long hours and have little communication with the children. The children are not able to form a close relationship with their parents in the early years and they don’t have enough interactions with the parents even when they are back in the U.S. All of this can easily lead to development barriers in social interaction, behavior and emotional adjustment in the children.


Educators are also concerned. A story by reporter Lei Zhu says:

Pauline Chu, President of Chinese American Parents Association who has rich experience in education, cited a Chinese saying “life formed at three” to elaborate her concern. She said scientists and educators have already found that human personalities are basically formed from zero to three years old. A child is like a plain paper after he or she is born. And it’s the parents’ job to put colors on the paper. Once bad habits are formed, a child could be like a twisted tree, not easy to straighten up.

She believes the Universal Pre-K program launched by the city is not a perfect solution. Although they now can take their four-year-olds back from China and enroll them in pre-K, the parents still have to figure out how to take care of the children after 2 p.m. when school is over. Furthermore, the parents who send their children back to China still miss the first three years of the child’s life, which is an important time. Chu said ideally, if it’s financially possible, one parent should stay at home to take care of the children before they turn three.

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