By guest bloggers Alex Plamp and Mary Jo Tewes from the Family Life class.
(Part two of two).
Most young people in China grew up as only children. Two thirds of them report feeling lonely as children, and wishing they had had a brother or sister. Since parents are only allowed to have a single child, all of the family’s resources and emotional investment get funneled into this one child. They are considered, with almost worshipful language, the “sun” of the family. Chinese only children are often described by others as willful and selfish because of this upbringing. When factored in with the fact that this generation is also mostly male, it can be guessed that the effect of this kind of childhood is likely to combine with the general nature of bachelors to trigger ever more destructive behaviors.
Related to the one-child law, divorces in middle-aged couples are increasing greatly in China as well. Divorcees between 30 to 40 years of age account for 46.5 percent of divorces in 2003, up 9.5 percent from 1981 (the article is here). These middle-aged couples are the parents of the present overwhelmingly male generation. I wonder if the divorces are another unexpected effect of the one-child law. Miscarriages, infertility, and the death of a child have been shown to exert considerable stress on marriages generally, so what effect does it have on a couple when they feel pressured into choosing an abortion? The ironic thing is that, though many of these couples paid the ultimate price in order to have a son who could care for them in their old age, that arrangement is now jeopardized by the divorce. Will the son bring both parents into his own house, as is the tradition, to care for two parents who will not speak to each other? Or will he be forced to pay for not just one but two or even three households, in order to maintain peace through separation?
Incidentally, the marriages of the present unbalanced generation are often more stable than those of their parents. Only 6.6 percent of couples younger than 30 got divorced in 2003, which is a big drop from 37 percent 22 years ago (see previous link). The older couples’ marriages are generally troubled by the infidelity of the husband. However, younger married men may have trouble finding a mistress, even if they want to cheat. Because of the shortage of women, men feel lucky to be married at all, and are more likely to value their wives as a blessing.
According to Maggie Scarf’s Intimate Worlds, the most important characteristic of Level 1 families is flexibility. The one-child law keeps families from exercising the natural flexibility that would otherwise allow them to accept female children, and just generally function normally. While the law has kept the country’s population under control, which is good, the effects it has had on individual families have been very detrimental.
What the Chinese need now is to learn to be flexible in reconciling this law with their tradition. The current demographic crisis is a sign that the law and tradition have not been reconciled to each other sufficiently. Both factors must become less rigidly defined in order to coexist without causing too much suffering for the families. Recent additions to the law, such as providing tuition discounts and other incentives for raising girls, and allowing parents in specific communities who are both only children to have two children instead of one, are steps in the right direction toward flexibility. A welfare system would ease the children’s burden of caring for aging parents, and the parents’ worries that if they have a girl they will not be cared for in their old age. In certain situations, a wife’s parents should be allowed to live with their daughter instead of the husband’s parents living with them, if that arrangement is more convenient for that family. Parents of girls should be allowed to feel just as secure about their retirement as parents of boys.