Ascendancy of `the little emperors'

24th February 1995 at 00:00
Yojana Sharma finds educationists anxious to overcome the problems of the single-child family. Last week, China marked the birth of its 1.2 billionth citizen - five years earlier than expected - and vowed to redouble its efforts to promote its one-child policy. Yet the authorities are worried about the implications for society of a generation of pampered, self-centred children known as "little emperors".

Massive faith is being put by the authorities in the education system, particularly kindergartens, to counteract excessive attention at home and turn the little emperors - many of them now entering adolescence - into co-operative citizens.

The one child per couple system has reduced the birth rate from 25 per 1,000 in the 1970s to 11 per 1,000 in 1993. According to official statistics, 80 per cent of urban couples limit themselves to one child. In rural areas, the average is still two.

"However, the fear is that if a whole generation are brought up as selfish, self-centred, little emperors and empresses the whole socialist system won't survive," said Dr David Wu, head of the department of anthropology at Hong Kong's Chinese University who has conducted extensive research in China comparing single children to those with siblings.

"The little emperor is egocentric and non-co-operative," said Jing Qicheng, a leading Chinese psychologist at the Academy of Sciences in Beijing. "Socialism is based on co-operation but we have these selfish little brats."

A huge expansion in kindergartens, nurseries and child care centres occurred in the 1980s, intended as an antidote to the spoiling that the Chinese fear is inevitable where four grandparents and two parents lavish attention on one child. In major cities, between 80 and 90 per cent of three to five year-olds now attend kindergarten.

In one recent study by Dr Wu which compared pre-school facilities in China, Japan and the US, 31 per cent of the Chinese interviewed said the most important thing for children to learn pre-school is concern for others, compared to 4 per cent in the US and 5 per cent in Japan.

Educationists from Japan and other Asian countries comment on how quiet and well-behaved the children are compared to other Asian kindergartens. Chinese kindergartens are extremely regimented and disciplined, with the teacher ruling in an almost authoritarian manner.

But many Western sociologists have been warning that over-reliance on such education methods to counteract the little emperor syndrome could be dangerous and ineffective.

Although Dr Wu's research, gathered from interviews with more than 2,000 families found that there was no real difference between single children and those with one or two siblings (those with more siblings now being almost impossible to find in China) there did seem to be differences between those who attended kindergartens and those who did not, apparently supporting the official view that education can counterbalance the problem.

But as Dr Wu pointed out, there is also a new phenomenon emerging among children: those who behave well at school but act in an anti-social manner at home. "It appears teachers are in charge at school, but children are in charge at home. They are learning double standards," said Dr Wu. This could point to a failure of the education system to counteract the negative aspects of the one-child system.

Magazines and TV dispense advice on how to discipline children for parents who do not wish to be too harsh on their only child.

The resurrection in the last five years by government-controlled publishing houses of many old Confucian texts, many forgotten since the Cultural Revolution, which deal with traditional child-rearing practices in order to help parents instil more discipline in their children, is some evidence that the government is beginning to realise that it will not be able to rely on schooling alone.

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