Chinese parents are highly renowned for their enthusiasm in children’s education and for extremely high expectations for their children’s scholastic performance. Using the China Family Panel Studies from 2010 to 2014, this paper examines the effects of children’s academic performance on their parents’ life satisfaction in China. We find that a one-unit rise in the class ranking of the child increases the parent’s life satisfaction score by 3.4 percentage points. Conversely, parents’ excessive educational involvement can have an adverse impact on their life satisfaction. The significant positive relationship between children’s academic performance and parents’ life satisfaction was, though, apparent only for middle-income, urban and single-child families, and only in provinces that are highly influenced by Confucianism. Our study also provides a partial socio-economic insight into Chinese parents’ obsession with their children’s education, and offers some important implications for policy makers in China.
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In China, 93% of parents pay for private tuition, and the average spending on children’s education from primary through to undergraduate education has been reported to be US$42,892. In this regard, Hong Kong parents ranked first, spending on average US$132,161 on one child’s education. Singapore, Taiwan and Mainland China ranked third, fifth and sixth respectively among the 15 countries and regions surveyed (which included North American and European countries, among others) (HSBC 2017). According to statistics published by the Chinese Society of Education, there are around 200,000 extra-class tutoring institutions across China, and the market for primary and middle school tutoring alone was to be some RMB800 billion in 2016. There were 137,000,000 students participating in extra-class education and around 8 million teachers involved (Chinese Society of Education 2016).
Many Chinese parents move home to be within the catchment area (in China, termed the “neighborhood school policy”) of a high-quality school, and houses within such catchment areas are usually exceptionally expensive for that very reason.
The closest study to ours is that of Chang and Greenberger (2012), which investigates ethnic differences in the parenting satisfaction of mothers who have college-enrolled children, using cross-sectional survey data from 140 mothers living in the U.S. Our study, aside from looking at a different cultural and ethnic group, differs from theirs by looking at students in primary, middle and high school, as opposed to college students.
The elimination of the employment substitution (dingti) system for workers in the public sector in China has also led to changes in employment. Dingti refers to an option available to an adult–child to take a parent's job after that parent leaves work as a result of sudden death, prolonged illness, or retirement (Davis 1988). First appearing in state enterprises in 1953 as a form of welfare for families in financial hardship, this system was extended to all state employees in 1978, but was abolished in 1986, when the system of contract labor became the officially sanctioned recruitment method. However, owing to loose enforcement of the new system, dingti continued until the mid-1990s, by which time it had lasted more than 40 years. According to Davis (1988), in the eight enterprises she visited in 1979, on average 80% of retirees used the dingti option in the first half of 1979, and nearly all new employees were children of retirees.
We convert the 1–5 scale to a 0-–10 scale by subtracting 1 and multiplying by 2.5, consistent with Liebman and Mahoney (2017).
First, we obtain the average ranking in class by taking the average of the specific numbers of the two ranks and then dividing them by class size. Second, we classify average ranking in class into five categories: 1 (top 10%), 2 (top 11–25%), 3 (top 26–50%), 4 (top 51–75%), and 5 (bottom 24%).
Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Frijters (2004) pointed out that as long as the model is set up correctly, it does not matter whether subjective well-being is seen as a sequential variable estimated using ordered probit or seen as a continuous variable estimated using OLS. We use the OLS individual fixed-effect model with robust standard errors, since it is easier to interpret the coefficient. Nevertheless, similar conclusions are obtained from ordered probit specifications for the results in the robustness tests, reported below.
In our sample, for the low-income families, annual household per capita income was less than RMB3833 in 2010, less than RMB5000 in 2012 and less than RMB5892 in 2014. For middle-income families, annual household per capita income was RMB3833–9025 in 2010, RMB5000–11,975 in 2012, and RMB5892–13,333 in 2014. For high-income families, annual household per capita income was more than RMB9025 in 2010, more than RMB11,975 in 2012, and more than RMB13,333 in 2014.
Partly due to the “one child policy” established in 1979, Chinese families have become smaller in size and hence, according to our hypothesis, parents’ expectations of each child are greater (Dello-Iacovo 2009).
We also divided the sample according to whether the families had 2 children or more than 2 children, and the findings are robust. The results are available upon request.
One major concern of the endogeneity problem in our case is that we may overvalue the impact of children’s academic performance, since it is endogenous to parents’ life satisfaction. However, the point estimates from employing instrumental variables are greater (0.3693 and 0.2510) than that (0.0340) of the baseline regression, which implies that the impact from the baseline regression has not been overvalued or undervalued. The substantial increase in the point estimate using IV may contribute to local average treatment effects.
Because of the ordinal nature of the dependent variable, “life satisfaction” or “happiness,” an ordered probit method is used to estimate a happiness equation as the robustness check.
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We appreciate the Institute of Social Science Survey at Peking University for providing us with the China Family Panel Studies (CFPS) data. This paper has greatly benefitted from comments of Kezhong Zhang, Yuanyuan Ma and Xin Wan, and comments from seminar participants at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, and comments from participants at 28th Annuals Conference of Chinese Economics Association in the UK. This paper was partly written while I was visiting University of Nottingham and I am very grateful to Lina Song, Jing Zhang, Kun Bao, Zhiyi Ren and professors in Chinese Studies Centre for their help and their hospitality.
This study was funded by National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 71403296), National Social Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 15BJL088) and Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation of the Ministry of Education of China (Grant No. 19YJC790090).
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Chen, Y., Huang, R., Lu, Y. et al. Education Fever in China: Children’s Academic Performance and Parents’ Life Satisfaction. J Happiness Stud 22, 927–954 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-020-00258-0
- Children’s academic performance
- Parents’ life satisfaction
- Education fever
- Middle class