A whole generation of single children have come of age, revealing some interesting sociopsychological observations. Although China’s one-child policy implemented in 1979 has helped curb population growth, their aspiring leaders and innovators are showing some undesirable tendencies that are not as prominent among children with siblings. Only a quarter of Chinese families had single children in 1975 compared with 91 % in 1983. So by comparing children born right before and right after the one-child policy took effect, researchers from Australia National University were able to keep other cohort-dependent variables fairly constant. What they found is that the single children tend to have lower social skills and weaker economic attainment than their slightly older peers with siblings.
The now grown up participants were tested playing various strategic games: dictator, trust, risk and competition and with follow up surveys. Those who were born after the policies took effect indicated by the results that they were less cooperative, less trusting, more risk aversive and less competitive than the ones who were born before the policy. The researchers were even able to document that the sibling-deprived participants more frequently demonstrated signs of neuroticism. Social interaction with peers and extended family could not mitigate the sibling effect. The full study was published in Science this last January.
With a sample of only 400-500 individuals from the Beijing area, I wonder if this is enough to draw any general conclusions, especially for a country with a population of 1.3 billion people. But given the experimental nature of the study I see why it would be too overwhelming to deal with a larger sample size.
Nonetheless, the results raise some interesting questions with respect to China’s future as well as our own to the degree that we can draw some parallels (which maybe we can’t). Obviously, siblings matter! Not that there isn’t a ton of other factors that play a part, but it does indeed look like siblings are important in forming pro-social behavior. So why can’t we automatically draw parallels on single vs. multiple children families in the U.S.? Because chances are, you might treat your child differently if the size of your brood is mandated by government and not by your own choice. You might be doting on your emperor a little more than you would if he had to share his dynasty with a rival. Knowing that you can only have one child might make you overcompensate by devoting more of your time sweeping away risks and other obstacles from the path on which you emperor is walking, hence removing the challenges he needs to tackle in order to learn problem solving skills. Do I hear the propellers of hovering tigermothers here?
But all this sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Parents doting on their overprotected children. Risk-aversiveness after years of playing games where “everybody wins”. What really is the difference between a little emperor and a trophy princess anyway?
Dr. Toni Falbo at University of Texas disagrees. And only child and having an only child herself she has made it her mission to dispel myths around only children. She largely attribute these myths from the ideas of early psychoanalysists. She has made her own studies in China that seem to defy the Australian findings. But when she discusses China’s one-child policy I can’t help feel that she is hugely glossing over the effects of totalitarianism on public opinion: “People were told that in order for China to become a world-class power, everyone had to make sacrifices, and families were willing to.”
Overparenting doesn’t explain the isolated effect of growing up without siblings even though it explains a lot. For example, from sibling studies we learn that firstborns are smarter than later borns partly because they have been single children for a while. But what they receive in educational stimuli they might miss in social education. As a mother of three I attribute most of my children’s social education to the interaction they have between each other. The positive as well as the negative. This is also something I gladly remind them of whenever exclamations of the type “No fair!” or “She started it!” reach that certain pitch that signals that toys are about to turn into weapons of massive sister destruction.
So maybe there are two things going on here. On the hand siblings teach you how to share and to cooperate – and that the world is not always fair. And on the other, there might be a relationship between overparenting and risk-aversiveness. Paul Tough seems to think so as does this teacher recently writing for the Atlantic.
And as a final comment, is the United States enforcing it’s own version of antinatalist policies that encourage fewer children? Looking at policies like maternity leave, access to affordable child care etc., it might seem so.
Images: Flickr: Antarehs, Think Progress