The Problem of Left-Behind Children in China


Rapid economic development in China has created an obvious gap between rich and poor, which has extorted thousands of workers to leave rural areas and migrate to industrialized cities. As a result, thousands of children have been left behind in countryside areas under the custody of relatives that have little to no education, friends, or potential to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, the custodians do not usually have the physical, financial ability or the needed knowledge to look after these children. Accordingly, children become prone to suffer developmental issues and have more chances to suffer from human trafficking, depression, which often results in suicide, or become participants of criminal activities. The paper deals with the potential problems of the alienated generation, members of which are brought up by grandparents, other relatives or friends, educated in countryside schools, or even extorted to live alone. The paper aims at exploring the definition, principal reasons, conditions, importance, and possible solutions to the problem of left-behind children.

Background Information

The concept of left-behind children has become prominent in the 1980s in the diversity of China’s literature. Although the studies of this concept have never adopted a generally acknowledged definition, China’s researchers cannot come to the general agreement in regard to the issue. In accordance with Ye, Murray, and Wang “those children whose father and/or mother have migrated for work and are taken care of by father or mother, someone from the older generation, and/or others” are regarded as left-behind children. In their understanding, this problem refers to those children who are under 18 years old. It is also considered that left-behind children are those youngsters under 16 years old whose parents have migrated and left them under the custody of other relatives.


According to Hong’s research, children less than 14 years old separated from their parents (or, at least one of the parents) due to the migration are typical representatives of left-behind children group. However, there are opinions that left-behind children are those separated from their parents and brought up by older generations or others. Unfortunately, the universal rate on the age of the researched group is still not clearly agreed. Taking into account the definitions provided above, it could be stated that there are such essential factors that help define the the researched group as:

  1. Who of the parents has migrated?
  2. The length of the period a child has been left;
  3. The age of the child.

If any of the above-mentioned factors varies, the differences in the research conception and in the results may occur.

With the development of Chinese urbanization and economy, there appear more and more left-behind children every day. Due to the growing number of migrant working parents, more and more children see their parents from one to two times a year only (e.g. at Spring Festival). According to the most recent survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation, the number of left-behind children in rural areas exceeds 61 million, which is almost twenty-two percent of all Chinese youngsters.

It should be mentioned that the majority of children were left behind at the peak of their educational, spiritual, and social growth. As a result of parents’ migration, these children encounter severe challenges in pursuit of high-quality education. Approximately, seventy percent of left-behind children attend the primary school while, at the middle or high school stage, the majority of these children abandon to visit schools (Yuan). Accordingly, they follow their parents’ steps and become a new generation of migrant workers facing the challenges of countryside-city balance.

The separation caused by parents’ migration evokes a range of severe problems and psychological changes in children’s perception of the world. Social migration in China at the end of the 1980s includes exceptional features that make the complications of the left-behind children issue more critical. Over the last two centuries, China has witnessed huge flows of population. Due to the registered population statistics, rural areas’ population in China equals to more than 900 million despite the fact that the number of permanent members there is more than 740 million. Such difference in numbers means that a considerable part of the registered population lives somewhere else. The extreme flow of population was mainly caused by the farmers who left their hometowns and moved to industrialized cities. In Beijing and Shanghai, there are more than three million agriculture workers who have migrated from the countryside.

In addition, the infrastructure, public service, and facilities of urban areas differ considerably from the ones of rural areas. Flourishing commerce, cultural, and entertainment activities of big cities attract young people.

Chinese school-age youngsters spend six years in elementary school and afterward three years in middle school. Some of the middle school graduates enter professional schools to study for occupation, and some continue studying in senior secondary school for three more years before taking entrance exams. Contrary to the urban education structure system, elementary and middle schools in provinces are poorly constructed, furnished and staffed. As a result, richer parents would rather send their youngsters to schools in the neighboring town, and smarter students would also prefer better schools. Each of the factors mentioned above has a negative effect on the students and teachers who stay in the rustic territories and make it more troublesome for students to stay in rural schools.

Due to geographical and historical reasons, China’s economic development is very uneven in different regions, rural areas in particular. Under the influence of the rapid development of market economy, the changes in the rustic labor transform the life conditions of the working class and make many couples leave their homes for various economic and other reasons. Children left behind face such serious mental problems as apathy, low self-esteem, timidity in all aspects of life, lack of love and communication, malice, impulsive irritability.

Without the parental control, love, care, and attention, left-behind children have more risks to suffer various injuries. For instance, according to the study conducted by China Youth & Children Research Center, almost half of the left-behind children group members received different injuries (scorch, cuts, electric shock, animal bites, and traffic accidents). The most striking is the fact that children raised in full families experienced 3-5 percent fewer injuries. In addition, while the rural schools are mostly underfunded and overcrowded, children face particularly severe academic problems. The majority of left-behind children decline scholastic performance while another half is not interested in studying at all.

Nearly 70 percent of children admitted that they were unable to understand the lesson tasks, 50 percent reported being unable to finish homework, 40 percent were caught being late for classes. Unfortunately, the statistics is extremely sad and frustrating while the rates of children raised by their parents were considerably higher.

Having no adequate social support, many children experienced negative feelings and emotions. While 40 percent claimed they were unfortunate, almost one half were petulant. One-fifth of the youngsters appeared to be prone to lose their temper, without a profound reason.

It was proved that left-behind girls are more sensitive than boys showing the lower sense of dignity, and higher scales of problems in social life than their male analogues. In regard to the feeling of loneliness, girls again suffered more and experienced this feeling 6.2 percent more than boys, and 6.7 percent more than girls raised by their parents.

Nowadays, more and more countryside with empty houses, muddy roads, “drought-withered fields of corn”, and left-behind children appear in China. As a rule, these children face severe and serious emotional and psychological challenges. The majority of youngsters struggle to succeed in their lessons although end up abandoning school and joining their parents on the road.

While young parents left their fading habitats in villages seeking for better job opportunities in big cities, the migration rate over the last decades has increased considerably. As a result, left-behind children are the consequences of the steep deviation of traditional Chinese values in pursuit of development and economic opportunities, and serve as a vivid example reminding how “routine migration” rooted into the lifestyle of the country.

According to Nie Mao, the author of the book about the fates of left-behind children Hurt Village, the future of these children is uncertain while their safety is always discredited . Being a social problem of China, and a whole world in general, the problem of left-behind children needs an urgent solution to save the lives of present and future generations.


The abundance of exploration assimilates the appearance of left-behind youngsters, with the grounds of migration. assigns The appearance of left-behind youngsters is considered to be assigned to the labor migration, especially its migration to industrialized areas. Although the analysis of the problem cannot explain why parents do not take their children with them but leave them in rural hometown areas, Jiayou et al. in the report survey on left-behind children in rural China try to give an explanation of such parental actions. He considers that Chinese society’s reorganization into the urban-rural system creates a number of difficulties for parents-migrants to take their children with them while urban children have diverse provision and educational rights in contrast to children from rural areas. Those youngsters who study in the lower-class schools for migratory children lack facilities, high-qualified teachers, and face the risk to miscarry in the contest for a worthy position in the urban school. Therefore, parents prefer to leave children in their habitual environment. Mainly, this appears to be one of the main reasons of such rapid and obvious emergence of left-behind children problem.

Chengrong and Fulin conducted a study in Motian village Xiushui County in Jiang Xi Province exploring the reasons of the appearance of left-behind children in the area. According to the results of the study, the authors highlight the following reasons of parents leaving their children:

  • They could not afford to provide their children with urban education;
  • The fees in the industrialized area schools significantly exceed the fees in the countryside schools;
  • Parents work in stressful and difficult conditions;
  • They could not afford to provide worthy care;
  • Unsettled behavior of children living away from home;
  • The unstable job nature.

Unfortunately, the current situation in the whole world shows that children left behind by their migrant parents are easily affected by negative behavioral patterns and are prone to commit crimes and lead indecent lifestyle. They are less prone to succeed in life and achieve something really worthy. As a rule, left-behind children showing their dissatisfaction with their parents’ choice to migrate to other places start following the wrong path. They become criminals, alcohol and drugs addicted, sexually abused, and peers harassed. The most striking is the fact that they experience all of these things at the peak of their self-development, and this experience considerably influences their future. Fortunately, this is not a universal truth that can be applied to every left-behind child. Children raised by parents who paid much attention to high moral principles are less prone to experience everything above-mentioned. On the contrary, they are prone to do their best and achieve their goals in order to become successful, have better future and help their parents.

As it can be noticed, the provided above factors prove the impossibility for children to attend urban schools. The majority of parents when leaving their children refer to the explanation that they could not afford appropriate child care in the urban area. In addition, unsettled jobs with long working hours make it impossible for parents to look after their children. Along with that, their children appeared to be unprepared and unable to study at the advantaged urban schools. As a result, they had to send their kids back home to attend ordinary schools.

The impact of parents’ leaving behind their children is evident in different aspects of children’s life. First of all, in normal families, members interact through face-to-face communication. As soon as the parents migrate, communication mainly takes place through the telephone or Internet. While parents work far away from the hometowns, children meet new custodians and a stressful new home environment. The mentality, culture, family traditions, lifestyle, and values comprised by the parents dramatically change to ordinary for new guardians ones. Although some guardians possess particular flaws, such as poor health, low educational knowledge and experience, age or harmful habits, the well-being of the left-behind child is rather doubtful.

One of the important issues one should pay attention to while discussing the problems of left-behind children is the problem of nutrition. As a rule, guardians provide children with basic, ordinary food only. They hardly pay attention to whether the food is hygienic, healthy, and important for child’s successful development and growth. The problem of the rural area is that during busy seasons, the guardians can hardly find free time to give children their meals in time. In addition, trying to save more money, guardians (e.g. grandparents) often buy poor-quality products (e.g. rotting fruits).

Secondly, the changes in the family structure and lifestyle influence child’s education. The migration of the parents greatly influences the strength of primary family unit weakening it and resulting in the decrease of socialization. The lack of spare time to broaden the child’s horizons has disadvantageous effects for the child’s development. It is a fact that grandparents may suffer from poor memory. As a result, they cannot help children in their educational process. Along with that, the majority of guardians are not willing and even trying to tutor left-behind children partly because they do not have enough time or because they do not have the necessary skills.

Thirdly, the family structure, habits, and values are the most important factors of child’s successful development in terms of emotions, feelings, and behavioral patterns. Left-behind children risk to become problematic children, which results to defective personalities, psychological problems or inappropriate and cruel behavior due to the lack of parental love, care, communication, and support.

The last but not the least, parents’ migration influences children’s communication with the migrant parents. As a rule, the communication with the people they interact with remains unchanged while the connection with parents weakens and becomes looser. On the contrary, the relationships with classmates, teachers and friends are strengthening.

In order to prevent all the problems, the government should control social migration, provide rural areas with better public services, job opportunities, and infrastructural facilities. If the life conditions in the countryside are improved, there will be no sense of migrating to another place. As a result, more families will live together raising their children in so much needed atmosphere of genuine love and care.


The problem of left-behind children is a matter of individual mischief as well as a national concern. The Chinese economy is now on the crossroads where fabrication and construction-based structure is obeying the “diminishing returns”. At the same time, the government hopes to turn home dissipations into the growth engine of the developing nation. It is considered that the government will face the challenges connected with the incorporating left-behind children into the common big city life teaching them all the needed skills for future successful development and turning their social liabilities potential to valuable human capital.

In the near future, left-behind children will occupy the significant part of the urban population. However, nowadays, the principal obstacle that disables them to settle in the cities together with their parents is the rejected to them free schooling. This appears to be the starting point of all the changes and reforms the government has to make.

For a considerable period of time, the financial gap between coastal regions and inland areas has been the essential driving force for the mass worker migration. However, the migrant flows start to move. The development of such cities as Chengdu, Xi’an, Zhengzhou, and Wuhan provides millions of migrants with good job opportunities that will not make them leave their hometowns and their families. The relative neighborhood with their hometowns gives the migrants more possibilities to take their children with them not being afraid that they may encounter some difficulties adapting to the new environment. In addition, these cities have extended local schools preparing them for a new flow of migrant children.

Although the perspective and promising plans to encourage urbanization and improve its economic machine has the chances to fail if the country is not prepared for future citizens to leave farms and mountain groups, the fundamental and only possible solution to the left-behind children issue is the reformation of the educational system, extending the overriding government’s dedication and care for public education and health condition.

Additionally, creating more job opportunities in the urban areas will provide the migrant workers with the perspectives of better, happier, more successful life. Migrant workers feel the enormous need of all of the above-mentioned measures in order to settle down in big cities and be accepted by the society. Unfortunately, left-behind children or migrant workers’ children will never be identified with their urban peers unless they have the chance to visit the same schools, live in the same places, and strive for the same future.

According to the information provided above, it becomes clear that the issue of left-behind children is a serious social problem that concerns not only China but also the whole world. As it can be observed, this problem is extremely harmful to the children first while it influences their social, mental, and even physical health. It is a truth universally acknowledged that children are the world’s future. As a result, if one wants the future to be perspective, successful, and healthy, he/she should care for present and future generations of children. It is obvious that not all parents leave their children by their will. Accordingly, the society has to provide enough opportunities for parents to find well-paid, perspective jobs even in the rural areas. Nowadays, the society pays more attention to political and economic development rather than to the most important eternal value – the family.

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