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Left-behind youth helped by imagination: study

By PAUL WELITZKIN in New York (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-09-09 16:11

As the ranks of China's "left-behind children"continue to grow, recently released university research shows that the generation needs to do more than dream of a happier and successful future self - they also require a strategy for becoming that person.

The research was conducted by Daphna Oyserman, dean's professor of psychology and co-director of the Dornsife Center for Mind and Society at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She was helped by Chongzeng Bi of Southwest University in Chongqing.

The scientists focused on a population with social and economic challenges: rural Chinese children who are left in the care of grandparents because their parents have moved to an urban area to seek higher-paying employment far from home.

"It's estimated that 40 percent of the children in rural areas (or about 60 million) in China are considered left behind," Oyserman said in an interview.

When the parents move from the countryside to an urban area, their children are not allowed to enroll in a new school. Usually, it's the grandparents that must care for the children ranging in age from 5 until they are teenagers.

"Everyone encourages the parents to leave in the hope that everyone will have a brighter future,"said Oyserman. The parents usually return home once a year during the spring new year celebration.

Oyserman and Southwest University professor Chongzeng Bi conducted studies with four separate groups of children, all around 14 years old, totaling from 124 to 176 students in Chongqing. Many of the teens reported that their parents had left them when they were as young as 5.

The researchers gauged the students' feelings about being left behind, their future and fatalism, and sought to determine what helps children rise above difficult circumstances.

Two of the studies found that the middle-school students performed better in school if they had strategies for becoming their future selves, as well as several options for becoming the self that they envision.

The other two studies showed that the mere thought of an unhappy childhood was enough to dampen the optimism and the ability of children to plan their escapes.

Through a combination of experiments, final exam results and behavior reports, the researchers found that the thought of being "left behind" had a negative effect on the teens' optimism for the future, and it increased their fatalism.

Having feelings that their fate and future were not in their control dampened the number of images students had of their future selves as well as the number of strategies they had to become their future selves, Oyserman said.

Students with more images of their future possibilities scored higher on the exam. Researchers found that left-behind students who had more strategies to attain their possible selves scored better on their exams a year later, controlling for their prior test score, and they were less likely to be depressed, Oyserman said.

Imagining possibilities for the future can be energizing, but for this to happen, children need strategies to get going. The strategies do not have to be detailed, just present, noted Oyserman.

Prior research has shown that left-behind children experience a higher rate of injury and illness compared to others, Oyserman said, while they face discrimination by teachers, their communities and the media.

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