China’s one-child policy has produced several effects. Among these:|
A relatively stable population
An alarming imbalance in the numbers of male and female children
A generation of children unprepared for the difficulties of life (the 80s generation)
A generation of pampered and spoiled children (小皇帝 the xiao huangdi)
There have been numerous studies since the 1980s on the problem of ‘only children’ in China, and the findings have been generally consistent. They find that these single children are usually more egocentric, less persistent and less cooperative than children with siblings.
They were more likely to be selfish, unsociable, maladjusted, conceited, fragile and cowardly, want immediate gratification and displaying disrespect for elders. The Chinese government has been forced to start parenting classes and family clinics to deal with some of these issues.
As a Westerner, I have found the disrespect toward elders to be particularly evident among the teenage and older boys, perhaps especially in Shanghai. Now, in fairness, teenage boys in every country tend to show disrespect toward everyone, but the problem seems to have a different flavor here.
The young men (at least in Shanghai) have a kind of arrogance and defiance in their eyes that makes very evident their attitude that they are definitely superior, that you - whoever you are - are clearly inferior to them. In practice it is most unpleasant to have a young boy or man present himself in this manner to someone much older. It is not only disrespectful, but quite offensive and insulting.
I recently had a young man, maybe 18 years old, remove my vegetables from the weighing scale in a supermarket and replace them with his own - with the obvious approval of his father beside him - because he was more important than I was, and I could wait while he was gratified first. And his eyes told me how much more important he was.
Parents want to ensure their child will receive enough of the teacher’s attention, so many will practice the ancient Chinese custom of showering the teachers with excessive flattery and gifts in the hope that their child will receive the special treatment he expects.
It is a common adage that in China there are 6 people spoiling one child. A big part of the problem is that parents will give everything they have - apart from time - to the child, apparently failing to understand that time is by far the most important thing they can give to their children.
However, these studies are missing perhaps the most important point. Self-centered behavior is not very socially useful, but the greater problem is that many of these children are lacking in most forms of life experience and therefore haven’t accumulated the tools and the judgment to deal with the world.
There are many privileges that come with being an only child, but there is a risk that many of these children have been so pampered and spoiled by their parents that they risk being incapable of doing anything for themselves. Even worse, they may grow up with a very unbalanced view of how the world really is. An 18-year-old may learn from his parents that he is more important than almost everyone else, but the rest of the world may not agree, and this young man may have some hard lessons to learn.
Often I have seen a mother on her hands and knees on the street, tying the shoelaces of a 12-year-old boy. It is common to see a mother spoon-feeding a child of 8 or 10 years old. One can often see both parents and grandparents doing the entire enrolment process at university while the (now mature) student stands in a corner and watches. What attitude will result later in life, in marriage or the workplace, from this kind of upbringing?
We have a saying in English that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. We need the experience, as children, of having to think for ourselves, to make our own choices and decisions and to suffer the results of the bad ones. That’s how we learn, and that’s how we accumulate the wisdom and common sense to enable us to deal properly and effectively with our world when we mature into adults.
A Western child at five years of age will be instructed by his mother to clean his room. Since he really wants to be outdoors playing with his friends, he must determine for himself the quickest and most practical method of organising that work. Does he first pick up his toys, fix his bed, clean up the laundry....? Poor organisation will prolong the work, so efficiency becomes paramount. But the quality of his work cannot be neglected because his mother will check the result, and if it isn’t satisfactory he will have to do it all again.
In this, and in thousands of similar small experiences accumulated during 20 years, a child learns a great deal about organisation, efficiency, decision-making and quality control. These experiences are all lacking for many Chinese children. The parents, typically the mother, will do everything for the child, expecting him only to study, due to the tyranny of the Chinese University entrance examinations. But at the end of the cycle, there are few useful lessons in living to guide a young adult in dealing alone with the world.
Some will say that Chinese people don’t believe in love, but the reality seems to be that they may not have the courage to love. An only child who grows up protected from everything will not know how to deal with the inevitable emotional pains from love and affection. They have never had a chance to learn about true love and responsibility.
The problems are not simply ‘social’ in a general sense, but specific in a personal way. Many children are sorely lacking in the myriad of experiences gained from choosing and accommodating playmates, and from the discovery and pursuit of playmates and friends of the opposite sex. Lacking these experiences, they don’t know how to make decisions about friends or lovers, nor how to deal with rejection and the pain that often follows.
Therefore, the easy and painless way is to avoid love and serious emotional attachments. When they are hurt, and they will be, often they will just turn away from love, to more practical things.
Often, during their entire early life, girls are spoiled and can have anything they want. So when they’re older they believe the rest of the world will be the same for them, and they can have a husband as per the list just for the asking. And both boys and girls have been so protected that they cannot handle emotional pain, so it’s easier for them to avoid love and instead to focus on the material aspects of a marriage.
This may be one of the main sources of the ‘marriage list’, of a girl (more likely her mother) refusing marriage to a man who doesn’t meet all ‘the requirements’ – a house, a car, a good job, lots of money, good looks, ......
A marriage that avoids love will inevitably focus on these ‘practical’ matters, to become a business relationship or some kind of ‘strategic alliance’ rather than a happy marriage. This is so true that love seldom arises in discussions of marriage. As well, there is a danger that a marriage not based on love will find love in other places. In Shanghai, people refer constantly to the women ‘MBAs’, those who are ‘married but available’.
A friend told me a story of a desk in her apartment that was in an inconvenient spot but nobody would move it; they had all sorts of excuses for why they couldn’t or shouldn’t, but in fact they couldn't think independently and couldn't decide what to do, so she finally moved it herself.
She said people are lazy, and too lazy to think of new things, so they just stay with however things are. She said they also have the background of obedience, and that tradition is safe and convenient for them. It’s the general habit, perhaps from the schools and the testing system as well. Obey, and let someone else do your thinking for you.
All of the above may help to explain the chopsticks analogy, why they go into things without thinking and planning, without attempting to remove all the obstacles beforehand.
Influenced by a long tradition and education, expected obedience to parents forms a powerful pressure on children even after they become adults. It is much easier to blindly obey parents and superiors since independent thinking means the assumption of responsibility, which requires much more courage and will inevitably cause pain.
Partly because of the Chinese education system and partly because of the hard time parents have experienced, most Chinese children are over spoiled. In the hope of letting them have happy and easy lives, the parents do almost everything for them. Under such protection, they never have a chance to practice the living skills themselves. Also, they haven’t got a chance to learn true love and responsibility.
For a person who doesn’t know true love and responsibility, it is quite hard for them to act appropriately when he/she meets love and responsibilities. It is much easier to inherit their parents’ method of love and pass on the same love to others.