The Chinese government announced today its plans to relax the controversial one-child policy: Under the new law, couples in which either member is an only child will be permitted to have two children. Introduced in 1979, the one-child policy has successfully reined in population growth but has created a host of other problems, from an aging population to an epidemic of risky sex-selective abortions and female infanticide perpetrated by families holding out for a boy.
The social and psychological consequences for a generation of children growing up without siblings have also been a topic of (mostly fearful) debate. Conventional wisdom holds that only children are spoiled, selfish and anti-social, and Chinese millennials are snidely referred to as “little emperors.” But it’s more complicated than that. When compared to Chinese children or adults who have siblings, Chinese people born under the one-child policy:
When given a sum of money to invest, they are more likely to choose a low-yield, low-risk option.
Some feared the Confucian ideal of filial piety wouldn’t stand up to a generation of selfish only children, but of college students born in 1979 (the first year of the one-child policy), those without siblings were just as likely as their peers with siblings to say they intended to help their parents in old age—and the only children, anticipating their parents’ loneliness, were more likely to say they planned to live in the same city as their parents (26.5 versus 10.5 percent).
On the one hand, the traditional preference for baby boys has played out in tragic ways like female infanticide and sex-selective abortion—but on the other, it’s forced many families to give their daughters the education and attention they would traditionally reserve for sons. In the same study of college students’ attitudes, 63 percent of only children (and 60 percent of those with siblings) said they had no preference for having a boy or a girl.