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Little emperors: Is china’s one-child policy creating a society of brats?

Crowell, T. & Hsieh, D. (1995, December 1). Little emperors: Is china’s one-child policy creating a society of brats? Asiaweek, pp. 44-50.


Chinese government policies that encourage one child per family coupled with a rise in middle-class prosperity have translated into opportunities for Chinese children. Parents and elders throughout middle-class China are pampering their kids like never before. For many Chinese parents with bright prospects ahead and memories of their own deprived childhood behind, spending their disposable income on their child’s future is seen as an increasingly intelligent and noble idea.

The positive side is that a large portion of urban family income is being spent on special schools, computers, piano lessons, and other positive extracurricular activities for the kids. The downside is that parents are buying increasingly fancy things for their kids and ignoring their own needs and desires. The result? A nation of "Little Emperors." Though psychologists warn against the detrimental effects of overindulgence, their opinions fall on mostly deaf ears. A Beijing mom sums it up: "You can’t refuse to buy things for your child when you only have one. You don’t want them to feel deprived."

Experts believe that the average middle-class couple may spend as much as 40% to 50% of its combined disposable income on their child. Since many kids have no siblings to play with, toys become an integral part of their early childhood. Clothes and shoes must also be continually upgraded and birthdays are occasions to buy new outfits and discard old ones. Studies show that parents rarely turn down their child’s request for magazines, books, or pens or even for big ticket items such as pianos, bicycles, and computers. Some of the totals:

  • More than $4 billion is spent on snacks.
  • Toy sales are expected to reach $1.4 billion this year and $3 billion by the turn of the century.
  • Kids are collecting an estimated $5 billion as weekly allowances, gifts from elders, and, in some cases, payment for chores they do at home.

"Chinese children have enormous economic clout," says James McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A&M University. His study of consumption behavior and preferences conducted in Beijing earlier this year showed that children’s preferences dictated 69% of the family’s overall spending. This is compared to the 40% "influence rate" American kids have in their families.

Mania for a child’s education begins at birth, when his or her educational path is mapped from pre-pre-school to a post-graduate degree from an elite foreign or domestic university. Since the amount of money parents feel they must spend on their children’s education can exceed what they earn, they must dig deep into savings and borrow from friends and relatives.

What does the future hold for the Little Emperors? Li Qingshan, a social psychologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that when these children grow up they will treat their own children much as they were treated. But others are not even sure that the coming generation will even want kids. "I can’t imagine what these egotistical, selfish, and moody brats are going to be like when they grow up," says one school counselor. However, she does predict that the generation will be the "most self-centered in Chinese history..."


  1. What do you think about the "I-didn’t-have-it-so-my-child-will" attitude?
  2. Do you see this trend occurring in American youth?
  3. How do you think the pampering of Chinese children will affect them in later life?
  4. Do you think you would be prone to spoil an only child?


  1. Parents in middle-class China often go without so their children may benefit. Spoiling a child can be a disservice, because the child may go through life thinking that things will simply be given to him or her.
  2. The money parents are spending may be put to more productive use. It could be pooled with that of other parents and spent on community programs and clubs that would support the development and growth of their children.
  3. The approach to child-rearing in China tends to differ from that in America. Without having experienced a "one-child" policy, it is hard to understand the motivations of Chinese parents.
  4. This information could be helpful to a youth worker preparing for service in China.
Sheila Walsh cCYS