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China Bringing Up Baby, One by One

5 minute read
Howard Chua-Eoan

Pretty and smart, the Beijing first-grader has nonetheless become a nightmare to her doting parents. “Weiwei turns on the television to watch cartoons after doing only 15 minutes of homework,” complains her father. “She eats lots of chocolate but hardly touches her meals.” Last May, in full sight of her guests, Weiwei, 7, imperiously scraped off for herself all the icing on her birthday cake. When her father scolded her, she snapped, “You’re a monster and a fat pig!”

There may be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Weiweis throwing tantrums throughout China. The reason: Beijing’s stringent one-child-per- couple policy. As its population approached 1 billion, the People’s Republic began enforcing the one-child limit in 1979. Today, of the 337 million Chinese children under 14, 30 million are without siblings. These children, called “little emperors” by the local press, have been swaddled in the love of their parents and grandparents; as a result, many Chinese fear, they are growing up spoiled, selfish and lazy. “The child cares about getting love from others but not for giving it to others,” observes Chinese Youth magazine.

The Chinese press frequently runs cautionary tales of cozened brats. A cartoon in Chinese Youth, for example, depicts an obese child lying in a bed littered with toys, stuffing himself with cakes and milk served by Mother, while Father stands ready to dress him. In his column in the China Daily, Xu Yihe writes disapprovingly of Jiajia, a friend’s pampered daughter who barely budges to prepare for school in the morning. While Jiajia sits on her bed, says Xu, “her mother combs her hair, her grandmother feeds her breakfast, her grandfather is under the table putting her shoes on, and her father is getting her satchel ready.” Single children are well aware of their special status. Said one: “I ride on Daddy’s shoulders and ask my parents to make a circle with their arms. Then I say, ‘You are the sky, and I am the little red sun.’ “

To the horror of the proletarian dictatorship, many single children seem to detest physical labor. When some 21,000 Beijing pupils were asked to write a short composition on the topic “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”, only 5% indicated that they wanted to become workers. Few wanted to be farmers. Most wanted to become taxi drivers, hotel attendants or Premier, because those occupations are perceived to be easy and comfortable.

But the gravest sins of the imperial brats are committed against China’s tradition of filial piety. When little Minmin’s parents asked their only son to empty the family chamber pot, he poured out only a third of the contents. “I’ve done my part,” Minmin said. “You’re responsible for the rest.” Some single children have even threatened to commit suicide if parents do not meet their demands. However, most do not have to resort to such extremes. Pampering is built into what is called the “four-two-one syndrome” — four grandparents and two parents, all doting on an only child. Many Chinese fear that when such children reach adulthood, they will be unwilling to care for aging parents and geriatric grandparents, forcing the elderly into the care of the state.

While Chinese psychologists, sociologists and child counselors are quick to concede the shortcomings of single children, they emphatically reject the claims in the press that the little tyrants pose an alarming problem. They are certainly not cause for having more children, a development that China can do without, despite the surplus of parental love. According to Mao Yuyan, a psychology professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, if parents want the atmosphere of a large family, they can organize their neighborhoods into quasi-clans. Children can also be trained in the collective spirit in nurseries and kindergartens.

In her studies, Mao found single children “faring better than those with siblings” in terms of intellectual development. She contends that some children with siblings are even worse brats. “They beat their elder brothers,” Mao says. “The decisive factor is not whether one is a single child. It is a question of parental attitude and education.” As an ancient Chinese saying goes, “Bad parents produce bad children.” Most single-child parents are survivors of the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Many failed to finish their own schooling, and they are often ill equipped to rear children properly. Some of these parents apply immense pressure on the children to succeed where they themselves have not. Many hire experts to teach the toddlers music, calligraphy or a foreign language. A few even force their sons and daughters to parrot elegant Tang dynasty poetry. Says Fang Xiang, a retired child psychologist: “There is no need for tutoring in composition or arithmetic. What’s important is moral education at home.”

To help remedy the situation, crash courses for newlyweds and parents-to-be are being conducted across the country. Bookstores are stocking up on child- care books. Schools and summer camps teach children how to dress, cook and do household chores. Says Mao: “We ask mothers to offer a childhood that is more than just chocolate plus toys, to teach the child to be courteous, collective- oriented and self-reliant. That way, they will not become little emperors.” What are parents to do when a child throws a tantrum? Do not give in to blackmail, says Fang. “Let the child cry all night. By the next day / everything will be forgotten.” At least until Baby learns to throw things.

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