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China’s only child: This strict policy is controlling china’s population problem. But will only children make unwilling socialists?

Hall, E. (1987, July). China’s only child: This strict policy is controlling china’s population problem. But will only children make unwilling socialists? Psychology Today. Sun, L.H. ‘Little emperors’: Chinese children rule the roost. (1987, August). Washington Post News Service.


Several questions arose from these two articles: What should the world in general, or a country like China in particular, do about its population crisis? What are the cultural, psychosocial, economic and theological implications of various strategies of controlling population? Are Communist nations static societies or are they involved in dynamic tensions and changes?

Key to China’s economic and demographic goals is the move to zero population growth, limiting China’s population to 1.2 billion (the population of the entire world not too long ago) by the year 2000. By then, most Chinese twenty-year-olds will be from single-child families. Noting this fact China’s Chinese Writers magazine, in its June 1987 issue, asks "What kind of younger generation will this be? What will be the impact of these brotherless and sisterless people on China’s development?"

In 1987, China had 37 million children under age fourteen. Approximately 30.5 million are the only children in their family. "Eight of every ten first-graders come from single-child families." This is expected to increase to nine out of ten in the next few years.

In 1986, the newspaper China Youth News published a series of twelve articles entitled, "The Little Suns in Our Lives." It presented some troubling portraits of what Americans would call "spoiled brats." In one story, a third-grade only child eats meat pies while his parents can only afford porridge. When he refuses to wear clothes that have been worn only once, he is spanked by his grandfather for starting a fight in school. Picking up a pair of scissors, the boy threatens to kill himself until the grandfather apologizes and buys him a new toy. In another situation, a steel worker watches his 18-month-old son gulp down his fifth orange soda in a row and says, "I know I shouldn’t give him any more soda. What do you want me to do? I only have one child." In a final anecdote, when asked to empty the chamber pot, a seven-year-old girl empties only half saying, "I wasn’t the only one to use it."

China Youth News asks, "What will be the outcome if parents allow this willfulness to continue?" Such attitudes do not seem to be a base for a strong socialist society. Nor do they make such children popular with their peers. The China Daily wrote an article, "Only Child Survey: They’re Great, But...," and Beijing Review was even more blunt with its "Dealing With the ‘Spoiled Brat.’ "

Three researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Psychology studied 360 four- to ten-year-olds. One half of them were only children; the other 180 had brothers and sisters. The two groups were carefully matched in age, sex, socioeconomic status, and family structure. Researchers interviewed classmates individually.

Despite strong indoctrination from media and school about duty, cooperation, and serving others, only one in fifteen only children was rated most cooperative; eleven of fifteen only children were rated most selfish; and only two of fifteen were chosen as best liked.

Summarizing these results, Hall writes in Psychology Today: "Only children were more likely than youngsters with siblings to refuse another child’s request for assistance (or grumble about it if they complied), found it less fun to play games with other children or to work along side them, were less modest, less helpful in group activities and seemed to shirk responsibilities."

A second study by these Chinese researchers (with American child psychologist Toni Falbo) interviewed Beijing teachers. "In their teachers’ eyes, the only children were more tractable than later-born children. These gentle, shy, obedient children who respected their elders, cared about the feelings of others, and liked to join in collective activities sounded nothing like the disagreeable only children described by their peers in the first study...[This] may fit the stereotype of American preachers’ kids: angelic youngsters who become demons when not under adult supervision." (Psychology Today)

To help parents adjust to the radical cultural change posed by one-child parenting, the government has established 20,000 "parents’ schools" to help fathers and mothers raise "little suns" in the right way. Government officials are confident that they can manage overindulged and overweight children through propaganda, parents’ schools, and more focus on physical labor. Parents are urged to encourage children to help with meal preparation, sweeping, cleaning and washing dishes. "Encouraging them to work will help get rid of some of their arrogance," said Luo Yupu, educational administrator.


  1. China is a giant on the verge of an exciting transition. America should watch and be appropriately involved as China decides its future. One half of China’s more than one billion persons are under twenty-five years of age. Increasingly, their ideas are more Western, more materialistic, and more democratic than those of their rulers. They cannot be ignored. A new openness to U.S. visitors and media gives us the chance to communicate democratic values.
  2. China is an important model for the study of population control, the family, and cultural change. Americans and the world will have much to learn from this grand experiment.
Dean Borgman cCYS