Differentiated Childhoods: Left-behind Children in Rural China
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Rural to urban migration is prominent in China. Since the middle of 1980s, China has been witnessing such a massive internal transfer of population. The migration of labor, particularly surplus rural labor moving to urban areas, has resulted in the emergence of the phenomenon of left-behind children. In the context of China, while there is a wealthy of literature which covers the subject of left-behind children, most of these studies focus on the various impacts of parental migration on the children. Only few have explored the children‟s agency and perspectives in the absence of their parents, and the coping strategies they adopt to respond to their parents‟ migration. This study seeks to explore both the impact of rural parents‟ migration on children left behind and children‟s agency to cope with their parents‟ absence. Furthermore this research aims to explore a robust way to supporting the left-behind children and their families, thus to improve such children‟s life conditions. Social studies of children and childhood is the main theoretical perspectives guiding the study. With the tenets of the New Social Studies of childhood in mind, this research approached all informants in their own rights and viewed them as social actors rather than mere subjects of social structure. The theory assisted in the study to make a more realistic understanding of how the structural conditions in the study area affect the left-behind children‟s life and how they as actors to exercise their agency to cope with the parental absence. The research has been designed as an exploratory qualitative study. The data from the fieldwork is based on eight cases studied through the research, using in-depth interviews, visual methods, participate observation conducted with the left-behind children, their parents, their guardians and their teachers. Data from the in-depth qualitative research conducted with the other four not left-behind children and the focus group discussion with forty children is also included. The research reveals that parental migration has considerable social and emotional costs for the left-behind children. They are engaged in more housework in the household. Most of them have a bad school performance without parents‟ discipline. They seldom have in-depth communication with their parents, and become skeptical of parental love. They tend to choose stay alone always, which makes them become more and more unsociable and autistic. On the contrary, parental migration also brought economic benefits to family members left behind by regularly sending remittances. It improves the quality of their lives and enables the left-behind children to receive better education. Meanwhile, their parents‟ migrant experience would have a deep influence on the aspirations of left-behind children in different ways. The care arrangements of the migrant parents for their children are multi-faceted. They had weighed up all kinds of factors associated with the dangers and pitfalls of life in a city, the ability of the caregivers, the life quality, their children‟s school performance and discipline, and then make a suitable care arrangement for their children. However, the study also shows that children were seldom involved in the family decision-making process when they are left-behind. Parents made decisions on behalf of their children, such as the care arrangement, and their children‟s opinions were seldom sought for. There is an imbalance power relation between adults and children where children become recipients of adult instruction and decisions. The study further indicates that left-behind children utilize their agency by adopting a variety of coping strategies to cope with parental migration. They assume the roles as caregivers in the household, and are constantly involved in giving care to their younger siblings as well as the elderly during their parents migrate. They make contribution to the care of the family by assuming certain duties and responsibilities in the family such as doing domestic chores, farm work. They do not only receive care but also give care to other people which signifies that their childhood is not idyllic, work-free and care-receiving phase of the life course. Their agency shows that how independent children can be without the intervention of adults.