China’s One-Child Policy: A Generation of Brats??


iphone 12.18.2012 457The social/cultural phenomenon of “tiger parents” is perhaps one of the most common associations that we make with Asian families these days.  While Amy Chua seems to be the origin of the term “tiger mother,” I have come to wonder whether or not the term is really an “Asian thing” or if it is just common among ambitious immigrant families who crave the American dream.  Sure, strict parenting is common among Asian families, and particularly among Chinese families.  But while observing Chinese children’s behavior while riding the bus, eating in restaurants or just waiting in line has caused me to reconsider what today’s Chinese parenting really is.  Ultimately, I have come to focus on how China’s One Child Policy has affected China’s current generation of young people.

After living in Shanghai and observing children in passing for the last three weeks, I recognize Chinese children’s academic diligence and yet what seems to be a struggle to uphold “traditional” social conduct.  I usually try to avoid using the word “traditional” to avoid connoting that cultures, traditions or behavior are either obsolete or superior, but it’s the best-fit word for what I am trying to conceptualize as social conduct based partially on Confucian roles and pre-One-Child-Policy notions of filial piety.  Based on Confucian values, the parent-child relationship is most simply described as one in which parents are responsible for their children’s upbringing and conformity to mainstream society, while children are expected to obey and someday care for their own parents as a reciprocation for their parents’ efforts.

I think there is still certainly a foundational value and adherence to the traditional parent-child relationship, but the actual fulfillment has definitely proven to be difficult as parents pour their hopes and efforts into a single child.  While I’ve read articles on how difficult it is for Chinese children to likewise successfully fulfill their parents’ dreams without breaking down or becoming depressed, it is clear that the One Child Policy has had an overarching negative impact on China’s generation of “princelings.”  A number of articles and papers have been written on the way in which Chinese children now revel in only-child indulgences.  Additionally, children are particularly spoiled as parents and grandparents (from each parent) shower attention, money and time on a single child—that’s a six to one ratio.  With six individuals eagerly investing in one child’s future, it seems that the traditional family structure has been inverted; where elders were once privileged over children, it seems that children are now privileged over elders.

While I haven’t been able to meet or observe any families or “princeling” children, I have noticed the subtle symptoms of the little emperor syndrome.  I’ve seen children burst into tears because their parents wouldn’t carry them.  On the bus, I have yet to see a child or person give up his or her seat (either out of his/her own conscience or by his/her parents’ instruction) for an elderly person.  On the plane to Shanghai, a number of students (myself included) mentioned that they were annoyed that parents allowed their children to run and scream through the aisles, even as people were trying to sleep.  Most of all, I see children in stores, mini-marts and restaurants pointing, wanting and getting—the inheritors of China’s growing consumer culture.  I’ve heard a number of other princeling stories from my international Chinese friends at Davidson.  One girl had a classmate who had her father do her art project for her in elementary school.

Every time I see and hear all of this, I wonder if parents and grandparents will ever be reciprocated for indulging their children to such extremes, or if children will develop an unrelenting dependency on their parents, not just materially and financially, but emotionally, spiritually and perhaps even intellectually.  If this is the case, the effects of the One-Child Policy on Chinese culture could be nearly apocalyptic.  I’ve questioned how China has countered the issue of a generation of little emperors, but it looks like the media and older generations’ reminders that princelings are “spoiled” are the two main counterattacks.  I remember during Ms. Guo Li’s introduction, she pointed at the back to her co-worker and gently made fun of her for being a part of the princeling generation; the girl giggled but was visibly embarrassed.  In preparation for Chinese New Year, some Chinese students and I were supposed to be in charge of preparing enough dumplings for a school-wide event in the 900 Room—however, because a number of them didn’t show up or didn’t know how to make dumplings, I ended up being the one to fold the majority of the dumplings and later clean the kitchen.  Needless to say, I was disgruntled and tired, but the students apologized to me profusely afterwards and definitely showed that they had a sense of shame that they either couldn’t or hadn’t helped that night.

Clearly, there is still a strong presence and sense of humility and shame among China’s young people, and I think this is rooted in the age-old concept of showing face and being able to express respect and sincerity in relationships.  Optimistically, I hope that concepts such as showing face are understood with age and that over-indulged children grow to be adults with a sense of humility and shame.  But realistically, I know that even the minor symptoms can turn into tremendous problems for Chinese culture at large.