Is the one-child policy spoiling China's children?

Michael Cook
12 April 2013
Reproduced with Permission

"Kids these days are spoiled rotten," grumbles the director of a Beijing kindergarten. "They have no social skills. They expect instant gratification. They're attended to hand and foot by adults so protective that if the child as much as stumbles, the whole family will curse the ground."

This sounds like the weary complaint of anyone over 60 about anyone under 20. But in China, it has a particular target: the little emperors, the cosseted offspring of couples who have been told by their government that they can only have one child. There are about 150 million families in China with only one child, more than a third of all families.

The one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to stop China's population from growing unsustainably. In principle, couples are limited to one child. Exceptions are made for couples whose first child is disabled, for ethnic minorities, and for farming families and for some other family types. But family-planning regulations are enforced with ruthless zeal in the cities.

China's birth rate fell rapidly after the one-child policy was introduced, even though demographers increasingly insist that it would have fallen anyway. Whatever the reason, the fertility rate in the giant cities of Beijing and Shanghai is about 0.7 - far below the national figure of about 1.5 and far, far below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.

A figure of 0.7 children per mother means that there are almost no families with more than one child in Beijing and Shanghai.

But is the little emperor syndrome real - or is it just a mass media liché eagerly repeated by China's critics?

This is the question which an Australian academic and three Chinese colleagues examined in an article in the prestigious journal Science earlier this year. To their surprise, their research confirmed the liché. "We document that China's One-Child Policy… has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals," they wrote.

It's one thing to complain about the younger generation in a coffee break, but quite another to prove it. How did Lisa Cameron, of the University of Melbourne, and her colleagues do it?

From an academic point of view, the challenge was isolating those personality traits which are due to the one-child policy and not just to increased wealth, smaller family sizes, Chinese culture and so on. What they did was to recruit 421 people who were born just before and just after the introduction of the one-child policy. The difference in family size was stark. Only 27 percent of the children born in 1975 were singletons, but 91 percent of those born in 1983 were.

For the researchers it was a natural experiment. Psychologists are interested in how a child's personality is shaped by the experience of growing up as an only child, whether he or she lives in Beijing or Boston. The theory is that sibling "deprivation" alters the relationships with parents and changes the way a child develops. Using standard economic games which measure trust and cooperation, Dr Cameron found that this was correct. The children born under the one-child policy are "substantially more pessimistic, less conscientious, and possibly more neurotic".

However pessimistic that sounds, it could get worse. The researchers stress that the people they studied are now in their thirties. "Later cohorts will have grown up with very limited extended family and in a society dominated by only children. Under such circumstances, we would expect that the policy's effect would, if anything, be magnified."

Some observers are sceptical about these findings. One Western businessman who has worked in Beijing, where the experiments took place, agreed that many of his employees were risk-averse and poor team players. But he thought it could also be due to cultural factors. Beijing-born children are often the offspring of bureaucrats and grow up with an entitlement mentality, he commented. "What about the generation of the Cultural Revolution? If you work with them, you find a whole different set of nightmares."

But if the one-child policy really has changed the personality of the last couple of generations, what does this mean for Chinese society?

Dr Cameron suggests that it could hurt the competitiveness and creativity of Chinese business. She even claims that some local employers include phrases like "no single children" in job advertisements. In 2007, some delegates to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference asked that the one-child policy be abolished because of "social problems and personality disorders in young people". People were becoming "more selfish and reclusive" because "children do not have siblings or cousins to play with," they complained. "It is not healthy for children to play only with their parents and be spoiled by them."

The best-selling American book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was a reminder that Chinese culture can drive high achievement. But Dr Cameron warns that other qualities are also needed for success in business. "Pro-social behaviour is consistently seen to be an important determinant of social capital." Single children are more risk averse and less likely to be entrepreneurs.

This research has lessons which extend far beyond China. While the Chinese government forced couples to stop at one to lower the country's birth rate, Western societies managed the same trick without coercion. Many couples in the United States and Europe have only one child on whom they lavish the best toys, the best holidays, the best piano lessons and the best education. But are they also turning out a generation of selfish, uncompetitive, neurotics? Time will tell.