China: So Many Little Emperors

Young Chinese Patriot - Beijing, China
Young Chinese family in Beijing.

Some instincts are universal. That virtually all parents want a better life for their children is one of them. Our journey continually bears this out irrespective of the cultural and socioeconomic context of the regions we visit.

But in China, something extraordinary has happened. Two decades of economic growth, an exceptional cultural emphasis on family, and the one-child policy have all conspired to yield a generation of only children accustomed to the full focus of their family’s emotional and financial resources.

The Little Emperor Syndrome

There’s even a wiki page about it. The Chinese government is certainly aware of it. During our travels, China Central Television (CCTV) featured a surprising introspective program (in English!) on affected Chinese men and women as they went abroad for university. After having limited experience doing for themselves at home (even simple things like laundry or making a meal), they were shocked by the reality of life outside their parents’ immediate care. Disappointments continued: expectations of returning to China after graduation to employers knocking down their doors went unmet. Parents worried constantly, too.

Little Chinese Princess in Red - Beijing, China
The Little Princess?

By no means is the Little Emperor Syndrome exclusive to Chinese society. This growing phenomenon has been noted in both developed and developing societies. Here are some articles on how it plays out in America here and here.

What we observed in China was striking, however.

In urban China – on the street, in trains, and in restaurants – the scene played out often: kids in control, parents on a leash. Any parental hesitation, and a child’s lip quivered, small cries turned to tantrums and parents went running for that missing toy, that extra cookie.

On a train from Xi’an to Pingyao, a three-year-old girl sent her mother up and down the aisles chasing thrown toys and tossed pieces of food. The mother looked worn, but each attempt to curb her daughter’s behavior was met with cries; mom was running again.

The center of attention, the center of the universe: the one child, the only child.

Rural Children and the Rest of Asia

In China’s rural and ethnic minority areas – where the one-child policy was relaxed or not enforced at all, poverty was more prevalent. But in these regions – as it was throughout the rest of Asia – children seemed to play more often with makeshift toys; they ran around and laughed at silly things. In both rural and urban contexts where resources had to be more widely shared, children appeared to fit into a larger universe, a larger order of things of which they were only a part.

Uighur Kids - Kashgar, China
Siblings playing together in Kashgar, an ethnic Uighur area.

The Future?

Fast-forward a decade or two and place these emperors and empresses in the workplace. Accustomed to being the center of attention and unaccustomed to constructive feedback, members of this emerging first generation are said to have trouble adjusting to independent life in the office, to life outside of their parents’ protection.

If future generations grow up with a sense of entitlement and a dependence on their parents, what will it mean for Chinese society?

Where it goes, nobody knows.

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  1. says

    This is a really interesting concept, one I’d like to read more about. I grew up with three brothers, and there were many good things about it, but on the conceptual level it was a constant education in learning that I wasn’t the most important person in the world, that other people’s needs and concerns were just as legitimate as mine, and that compromise was usually the best way to get something done.

  2. says

    Three brothers! I can see a lot of compromise and sharing attention with that. I’m not a parent, but I can only imagine the balancing act parents of only and multiple children must constantly struggle with.

    What’s also interesting is that families are now allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl – there was an imbalance of girls/boys in the first generation because parents were choosing to keep their boys and not their girls when only one child was allowed. It’s created a new “power” for girls. Also, it’s now “hip” for urban parents to have two or more kids – it’s like a sign that they are wealthy enough to pay the government fines. I’m sure the literature on this will only increase.

  3. Ari says

    On the face of it China would certainly lead the syndrome! But it is an international epidemic; In western society, our equivalent is the middle child syndrome !! For a long I know I did not want to admit that it could be a plausible rationalization for my child’s disrespectful & intolerable behaviour; not wanting to pigeon hole him with a label !!
    Parents don’t have to contend to a “balancing act” nor should parents of multiple children be constantly struggling. But we must understand each of our children are unique individuals, is an absolute.
    Back to middle child syndrome ‘Jonah the Greats shared thought’ defines a seriously huge dilemma for the little emperor or middle child to fathom they are “given a false sense of entitlement”
    Unlike Chinese parents I have not ran after or allowed my children, to misinterpret our parent / child relationship. Consideration for others is not to be mocked. Though, my middle son demonstrates contemptible emperor child / middle child syndrome. He has an older brother whom would things for him to make him happy- fearing he may get into trouble if his baby brother was upset!; an when his younger brother came along, he then got him to run after him when his older brother didn’t.
    It is in hindsight, that this is given cause in part only.
    My 2 eldest boys are both young adults now, and my youngest manchild is in his last adolescent year before he officially becomes a teen.
    My emperor child is in no way prepared for a life outside the protection of his home, but his ‘self imposed entitlements’ leave him no social skills at all.
    His disciplined focus has been on him, he is a brilliant performer and finds solace in the manipulation of others. He is a lovely boy, when he wants to be. But eight tenths of his time, he struggles to understand why he is not fitting in anywhere. It is important they understand the life of another is as precious as their own, and through respecting others, leads everyone to a more fulfilling outcome than if we were to manipulate others for the service of one.
    Its terrible to think that China in a National capacity have given rise to a nation of like children, and very afraid !!

  4. says

    @Ari: Thank you for a very thoughtful comment. I often wonder what thoughts are passing through parents’ and childrens’ heads when I see this sort of behavior. It’s interesting to hear a rather objective and introspective analysis from an actual parent. On an individual level, I’m sure parenting and raising children is difficult. What’s more difficult, though, is raising a society. Thank you again.

  5. Pearl says

    This is a really interesting concept, one I’d like to read more about. I grew up with three brothers, and there were many good things about it, but on the conceptual level it was a constant education in learning that I wasn’t the most important person in the world, that other people’s needs and concerns were just as legitimate as mine, and that compromise was usually the best way to get something done.

  6. says

    @Pearl: Yes, this is the crux of this piece and apparently of this syndrome — the sense (or lack thereof) of interdependence and that there’s more to the world than just “me”.


  1. […] O aspecto social da existência de filhos únicos criados como objeto de adoração pelos pais não pode ser ignorado, existe aqui o que chamam de “síndrome do pequeno imperador“, esta síndrome é comprovada com a observação da obesidade infanto-juvenil na sociedade chinesa, no entanto a pior consequência não é aquela ligada aos problemas físicos da obesidade mas sim as comportamentais. Um excelente artigo (em inglês-So many little Emperors) sobre esta síndrome você pode ler aqui. […]

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