China has jut relaxed somewhat its policy, introduced in 1979, to limit parents to just one child per family. A generation of Chinese has grown up without brothers or sisters, although their parents typically belonged to families averaging four children. Some fears were unfounded. Sociologists spoke of a “Little Emperor” syndrome, with single children growing up pampered, spoiled and self-centred. It has not happened according to several studies. It seems to have been just Western sociologists projecting onto the Chinese something they had occasionally observed with an only child in the West. There have, however been several interesting findings.
It should be noted that the parents of this generation had brothers and sisters, so the only child was surrounded by cousins to relate to and to interact with. The Chinese actually use the word “siblings” to include cousins. The second thing of note is that the parents of such offspring could spend on the one child the resources that might otherwise have covered four. This has meant a higher degree of education for them, coupled with parental pressure to achieve. The Australian group that used games and surveys to research singleton children in Beijing reported that this was a generation “significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk averse and less competitive.” They were also found to be “more pessimistic and less conscientious.”
More recent children have been born to parents who were themselves singletons, and thus lack the penumbra of extended families. Furthermore, recent economic rends have led to increased migration, both within and beyond China, setting up distances between these only children and their grandparents and other relatives. The question is whether this will weaken the typically Chinese concern with, and loyalty towards, family. And one other factor is the economic one. With only one child to care for, families have seen an increase in discretionary spending, and have seen living standards rise. Combined with China’s economic expansion, this has seen unprecedented rises in well-being. Of course, as this generation ages, there is concern that not enough young people will be around to pay the taxes that support social services. But that lies further down the road…
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