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.
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.
Siblings playing together in Kashgar, an ethnic Uighur area.
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.