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When 'little emperors' become parents...
By Rong Jiaojiao (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-03-17 23:09

The little baby lies on the sofa, giggling. Sitting beside him is his 26-year-old mother Liu Li, with her eyes glued to a South Korean soap opera on the television.

Liu Li's mother Wu Xiuqin sighs. "Now I have two children to raise, my daughter and my grandson," she says.

Liu's generation were called "little emperors," spoiled only-children born since the late 1970s, when China began to promote the one-child family planning policy.

The first generation of these only-children are now becoming parents themselves.

Grandma Wu came to live with her daughter and son-in-law when her six-month-old grandson was born.

"They are both only-children, and neither of them knows how to cook, not to mention how to tend to a baby. I have to help look after my grandson, and also to cook for them," said the 55-year-old retired woman from Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu Province.

Liu Li, a high school teacher, says the baby was "unexpected," owing to the failure of contraception. "I thought of abortion, but changed my mind when I stood before the hospital, suddenly feeling it move inside me," she said.

Nevertheless, she confesses that she cried at the sight of "the pink, tiny and crumpled creature crying to me right after delivery."

But at first she "didn't dare to touch him, for fear I might break his little finger."

Liu admits without her mother she would be at a total loss.

Up to 2004, there were 80 million families with only one child across China, according to Beijing-based Research Centre for Population Information. More than 6 million only-children from these families have entered the typical marriage and childbearing age range of between 26 and 35 years old.

The centre estimates that one-child families will account for 71 per cent of all the families in Beijing and 73 per cent of those in Shanghai by 2035.

Sociologists have followed the development of the only-child generation with interest.

Only-child adulthood

According to a survey conducted last year by the Youth Research Centre of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences on 1,828 parents aged from 25 to 35, 39 per cent of them are the only children in their families.

"Most of the previous research on China's first only-child generation has focused on their childhood or job hunting stage," says Bao Leiping from the Shanghai centre. "But our project is centred on their adulthood, like their approach to marriage and childbearing, relationship with parents, pressure and ways of child raising."

The research shows that children from only-child families tend to start dating earlier than children from multi-child families. About 34 per cent of this group begin to date before the age of 20, versus just 8 per cent among children with siblings.

Yet the two groups differ only slightly in their attitudes towards premarital sex, with more than 13 per cent of the only-child group and 11 per cent of the multi-child group deeming it acceptable.

When it comes to the balance between raising a child and career development, nearly 17 per cent of the only-child group compared to 12 per cent of the multi-child group would choose their career, even at the cost of having a child.

What intrigues the researchers is that the survey indicates more than 74.1 per cent of the only-child parents, against 68 per cent of the other group, not only buy toys for their children, but also for themselves.

"This indicates that the only-children pay more attention to personal feelings and personal development," says Bao Leiping. "This may prevent them from spoiling their children, since the concept of independence and equity is deeply rooted in them."

While pregnant, Liu Li chose to behave just as she always had. She watched the 2004 European Football Cup on television late into the night, went to the hospital for medical examinations on her own, and gave up her seat on the bus to the elderly. "My husband fully supported me," she said.

The Shanghai survey reveals a striking difference in the relations with parents between the two groups. The only-child group depends more on their parents than the multi-child group. About 18 per cent of the only-child group rely on their parents' money to pay for weddings and housing, against 10 per cent of the multi-child group.

Half of the grown-up only-children live with their parents, compared to only 28 per cent of their multi-child counterparts.

Such a tendency puzzles sociologists. Bao observes that normally the better-off the family is, the smaller it gets, with only two generations living together.

"But the only-child parents often have their parents living with them so that the elders can help take care of their grandchildren. Consequently, new conflicts arise between the two adult generations on how to raise the baby," she says.

Parental conflict

Qian Qian, Liu Li's husband, has experienced his fair share of such conflicts. "When my son was two months old, my mother-in-law wanted to feed him some wheat products, the way she had raised her own daughter. But my wife firmly disagreed, saying she learned from the Internet that only milk should be given until the baby is four months old," said the 26-year-old engineer. "Finally her mother gave in."

The mother and daughter bathe the baby every night, and each time there is a debate on how to position the baby or how long it should take, says Qian. He says all he needs to do is "just play with the baby."

When her mother goes back to her own home to spend the weekend with her father, Liu Li says her son eats and smiles less. "Most of the time he looks around as if searching for my mother," she said.

Too much dependence on the grandmother may compromise a young mother's ability to raise a child and the intimate mother-child relationship, warns Bao.

"Since the grandmother does most of the trivial things, the mother may lose the child's endearment, which is important."

On the other hand, she says, the share of the care for the baby may expose the child to both traditional and modern education, so "it does have its advantages."

Liu Li says she will let her mother go when the baby is one year old, when she plans to send him to a day-care centre, where he can play with other children under the care of professional nurses.

She still dreads the feelings of loneliness she experienced when she was little, as "no one played with me while my parents were busy."

Another problem

Apart from remaining childish when they become parents, Bao says the only-child parents like Liu Li may face the pressure of having to take care of four old couples -- their parents and parents-in-law -- when they reach their middle ages. "This could be a burden to the younger couple with one child or even two," she says.

Chen Gong from the Institute of Population Research at Beijing University dismisses concerns about caring for the older generation, saying welfare and community services are constantly improving.

"With the development of society, more social resources will be involved in the support of the old, who will no longer just depend on their children staying home to take care of them. We already have community services, and welfare in the future will take a more active role in supporting senior citizens."

Wrong labels

On the whole, Chen says, there is not a great difference between only-children and children with brothers and sisters. Although only-children have received more attention, "it's not right to label them selfish, lazy or spoiled," he said.

"The family planning policy has won time for them and society as well; and society is able to provide them with unprecedented spiritual and material resources. Of course they have their own problems, but they will surely work out their own way of survival when taking advantage of the resources."

Despite her dependence on her mother, Liu Li said: "I have grown up and learned a lot with the baby in the past six months, and in the future we will continue to grow up together."

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