Research in the West and China: Are only children different?

by on February 19, 2011

in Bernice's Research

Part 1

Only child

In my previous post I looked at the roots of the negative stereotype. Prior to the 20th century the large family was the cultural norm. Having a lot of children was preferable because of high infant mortality and the lack of social benefit for the elderly. The more children you had were a guarantee, that as you became older, there might be someone to look after you. Farming communities in particular, knew it was beneficial to have many children to help with the numerous jobs required. The industrial revolution changed this somewhat, as more mouths to feed did not necessarily generate more food unless everyone had work. It was only when birth control was both more effective and freely available that this situation changed. Now people had a choice about the number of children they had, but the deep-seated idea that having many children was ‘God’s will’ remained. Even today there is still a connection in many people’s mind that children are a blessing so the more you have.

Early research demonstrated that only children were prone to feeling less autonomous, experience insecurities, being dependent on others – and in the extreme – live a ‘self-less’ kind of existence. Similarly in the 1980’s various Chinese research psychologists concluded that only-children were more likely to have personality and social behavioural problems. Their research discovered that only children were more egocentric and less persistent. In the press they were dubbed: “Little Emperors’’, because they were viewed as more independent and me-orientated and did not reflect the collectivist values of China. When we compare this to the western’ list  of what is negative about only children it is almost diametrically opposite to the Chinese experience!

Toni Falbo’s* meta analysis in the West, after analyzing previous only-child research, concluded that there was very little difference between children with siblings and only children. She believed the research was flawed because there were too many variables in the studies to consider. Falbo and her colleague Polit were invited to China where they conducted research on 4,000 children in rural and urban settings in three Chinese provinces and Beijing. Self-descriptions were used and descriptions from peers, teachers an a parent to gin views on only child behaviour. Analysis indicted that only children had a slightly higher verbal ability and were considered to be good students, not arrogant and self-centred as feared. Further research by Zhang Hua in 2003 also concluded that only children: “are more knowledgeable, outgoing, democratic, observant of laws and regulations, and conscious of self-development and environmental protection. As IT continues to develop so rapidly, they are keen to keep up to date and gain access to the latest information.”

Chinese extended family

However this is not the case with other Chinese research. Only-children have had social problems into the 21st century, although these have been increasingly addressed. This is because parents’ primary concern tends to be on academic achievement rather than health, social or moral development. The government see this as a problem and is redressing this imbalance by introducing projects such as the ‘Star River Happy Garden’, the ‘Happy Rural Farm’, and the ‘Happy Camp’ designed to create more opportunities for only children to socialise in big family groups rather than just their nuclear family. All schools are now required to pay equal attention to intellectual, moral, physical, artistic, and social education.  Chen Huilu professor at the Development Psychology Research Institute at Beijing University used western knowledge to start the young child’s ‘Socialization Project’ which focuses on children’s sociability, teaching them how to play and learn to both co-operate and look after themselves.

My next post will discuss what we can learn about only child research from these rather contradictory facts.

*A fuller discussion and description of the research literature can be found in ‘Only Child Experience and Adulthood’

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