I’m writing a term paper on the strategic fertility behaviors under China’s One Child Policy, which means I’m starting to write about this subject again. A casual search at Duke library’s website led me to a wonderful book by anthropologist Vanessa Fong on the psychological well-being of singleton children in China.
As the author points out, the “one-child” policy embodies a cultural model that requires reduced fertility and increased per capita investment in children for modernization. Urban residents in Dalian, the city where Fong did her field research, seem to have internalized this model and agreed with the rationale of the birth control policy.
Demographic theorists argue that parents in urban environments are likely to want fewer children because children cannot contribute much to family income though they cost a lot of time and money. Then a natural question would be: does fewer children lead to higher quality of children? The answer is ambiguous.
Undoubtedly, singletons enjoy more resources and care from their parents because they have no siblings to compete with. The unlimited supply of parental care, combined with an aspiration to live a “first world life”, prompted many teenagers to spend heavily on brand clothing, video games and entertainment, and gift exchange. This became a burden for low-income parents who could barely make ends meet.
Being the only child in the family also means enormous pressure to “be successful”. While singletons enjoy all of parents’ resources when they are young, they have to take the full responsibility of taking care of their parents in the future. Since education is considered as the primary way to climb up the social class ladder, singletons are pressed hard to excel academically. Some break down in such pressure, as suggested by the rising suicide rates among Chinese youth.
Compared with their parents’ generation, singletons enjoy a lot more privacy and have a much stronger preference for private space. Many of them do not know how to defer to others, and it can be hard for them to adjust to new environments. Having lived in the school dorm since I was 12, I have witnessed how many “little princesses” transformed into considerate, caring young women that always take others’ perspectives into account. Living in the dorm creates a sibling-like environment where interpersonal skills are learned through constantly resolving conflicts. But singletons who have been sheltered by their parents might find it difficult to forge cooperative relationships when they enter the society.
It is fair to say that the “one-child” policy has empowered girls. Girls in my generation no longer have siblings to fund and are therefore able to accumulate more savings for personal development. The marriage market also works in favor of the girls because of the skewed sex ratio.