SPEAKING FREELY One-child policy shoulders too much blame
By Toni Momiroski
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Much has been written of late about China's one-child generation, those 20 and 30 somethings, who wait to take their place in the social hierarchy. Hvistendahl (2013) has described this young generation as "selfish, spoiled, and maladjusted". Cameron, Erkal, Gangadharan & Meng (2013) have argued that the one-child policy "has produced significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals". Such a group profile is in need of explaining because it has future-oriented personal, social and financial costs.
It is possible, I argue below, to see the reported behavioral
problems of Chinese one-child policy children reported by the above authors as located in the adoptive separation trauma experienced by children in the formative years - to which it bears striking resemblance both in cause and in effect. This claim is made on the grounds that there are salient similarities between them. These important similarities can be teased out comparatively and are borrowed from pre and post natal infant care psychology focused on mother-child necessary bonding processes. The differences between them are important too, as they illustrate that context-based socio-psychosocial differences decisively influence human actors and are to be expected when dealing with observation of human social subjects.
For Cameron, Erkal, Gangadharan & Meng (2013) China's One-Child Policy (OCP) introduced in 1979 has been one of the most radical approaches to limiting population growth and has had significant ramifications for Chinese society. While for Hvistendahl (2013), children born after the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, the so-called "little emperors", has helped shape the personalities of "Chinese 20- and 30-somethings" in ways that the policy shapers were unable or unwilling to entertain and therefore in neglect to anticipate.
For both, experimental social birth control as a significant social manifestation (event), helps explain this group in terms of the personalities of the children themselves and the consequence of that can measured in their actions in societal terms. This paper argues that the one-child policy proposed by Hvistendahl (2013), Cameron, Erkal, Gangadharan & Meng (2013) and others, goes some way to explain this phenomenon, yet an alternative and simpler hypothesis presents itself that is culturally located, precedes the policy itself, and is made the worse by modern living arrangements.
As a long-term teacher at university in Asia with a six-year investment in Chinese education, I agree with Hvistendahl's (2013) description of the Chinese young generation of students as "selfish, spoiled, and maladjusted". But, I would also add that they are also highly "intelligent" with a strong and misplaced sense of "entitlement" which is daily illustrated in the "demands" they make. I also agree with Cameron, Erkal, Gangadharan & Meng (2013) from the "effects" perspective that this generation has "less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals".
I also agree that this generation poses a serious long terms societal threat from the negative cultural capital perspective that they potentially collectively stand to contribute. With both however, I differ on the primary "cause" which I propose to be located in the diametrically opposed responses to having been abandoned on the one hand in their formative years by parents for reasons of convention or for reason of lifestyle; the other being a tendency toward acquiescence, compliance and withdrawal by them in order to compensate for the trauma that this separation has affected.
The two polar opposites of "abandonment" and "compensation" that help explain adopted children adjustment to the trauma of parent rejection are explored by Verrier (1991). This is a useful approach towards understanding the so-called "little emperor" generation from both a cause and effects perspective. I hypothesize that the cultural norm of children given to the rearing of grandparents and significant others in the formative childhood years in China, especially during the one-child policy stage, can better explain this phenomenon than do explanations based on policy alone, that is not opposed to the former approach, but complementary to it.
Statistics are hard to access in China not least the result of language barriers but often are also hidden away for reason of state secrets. What data is available on child rearing by grandparents is patchy but the data is thoroughly thought provoking in support of the present hypothesis. For example, Shanghai Women's Union (2009) research of 2000 families in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing has reported that on average 49.9% of children are reared by grandparents with variation according to city with Shanghai reporting the highest number of the total with 53.8%. Significantly, an additional 3.8% on average across the three cities were reared by "others" making a total of 53.7% of the total children not brought up by their natural parents.
Whether this research is statistically atypical of child rearing experiences in China generally is debatable. However, when data is scarce or inaccessible what remains is to fill in the gaps using multiple strategies. One is to draw on personal observation and experiences and in consultation with co workers and friends to fill in the statistical gaps. The other, is to look at other social parameters that concurrently run and are related to the phenomenon explored here such as social migration patterns.
So far as the first approach is concerned, co-workers and friends report on average that the experience of relegating child rearing, especially in the formative months and years of children, is a significant social fact in their daily lives. This was true in their personal experiences when growing up and for their immediate families as well as for their friends. As for personal daily observation and in discussions with students in terms of their personal upbringing experiences and for their future intentions as parents, in the main they confirm the view that child rearing by grandparents is a significant expectation in Chinese society. As for migration patterns, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China (Baijie, 2013), it is noted that the migrant-worker population in China reached 262.61 million in 2012, with a year-on-year increase of 3.9%. Significantly, only about 33.75 million of the workers migrated with their families.
While this marked an annual rise of 2.9% according to the bureau, it is noteworthy in the shortfall it points to between worker migration and family migration with a 13:1 ratio. It is possible to view the deficit as leading to a statistically significant number of broken families and thereby of children left in the care of their grandparents or extended family significant others at the source. As for the above data of 53.7% (Shanghai Women's Union, 2009), this is significant numerically when more than half of the target population's children are reared by other than the natural parents and permits for alternative explanations to be offered to explicate the "little emperor" generation in terms of the negative connotations attached to it as located in cultural practices rather than in policy alone.
Verrier (1991) provides an excellent framework that helps explain the role that separation trauma plays in cause and effect cycles in adopted children. She writes of her personal experiences as an adoptive parent, a teacher, and a researcher of separation between parent and child. Her focus is on the necessary bonds between the mother and the child she has carried for nine months in the womb. The unnatural separation between mother and child in the adoption process is traumatic for both and leads to future oriented individual and social ills. While Verrier's focus is on mother child separation, her insights are useful in the present exploration of one-child policy Chinese children for the clarity it offers in seeing separation from a cause and effect process perspective measurable in the resultant behavioral problems it produces as outcome.
Following Winnicott (1966), Verrier (1991) tackles her central problem by noting that there is no such thing as a "baby" but there is instead a "mother/baby" an emotional, psychological, spiritual unit. At birth, while the mother and baby are separated physiologically, they still remain psychologically one. Therefore, for the child separated from the mother at birth or soon after, such an idea has tremendous importance. The importance of this notion of "mother/baby" unit finds significance in the idea that rearing an adopted child would be different from rearing one's biological child. The difference is to be found in the "two diametrically opposed responses to having been abandoned; the other being a tendency toward acquiescence, compliance and withdrawal" (Verrier, 1991).
It is in the abandonment as cause, and the resultant social outward negative behavioral manifestations of children as effect, which the phenomenon of adopted children explored by Verrier finds unity with one-child policy children reared by grandparents in China. For both, the mother child bond has been severed that helps spawn different child growing-up realities. Different growing up realities, no doubt, can produce a different type of human that tends to socially act on the realities that helped produce it. Of course, no one to one relationship is presupposed here as none can be offered as the research is still in the future as the effects of this maturing generation are yet to be felt society wide. Instead, what can be said, is that the possibility of convergence between the two exists and is to be found in that moment of separation between mother and child for reasons of convention or parent lifestyle choices in the child's formative growing-up years.
When considering the present problem, like Verrier (1991), I too had no idea at the outset that separation had anything to do with what is going on with one-child policy children behavioral problems in China that I have observed personally. While the one parent policy explanation had validity, it didn't completely fit what I was intuiting and observing in my students. The conventional wisdom answers provided by existent research explanations seemed all too convenient so that it was necessary to think out of the box towards a more thorough explanation. This meant going out beyond the policy itself into the realms of prenatal psychology that explains attachment and bonding and the trauma affected by separation, abandonment and loss as two inseparable processes.
In this connection, Verrier (1991) had observed that the lack of a permanent caregiver deprives the child of some of the requisites for normal psychological development such as continuity of relationships, emotional nurturing and stimulation. As the number of caregivers increases, the ability to attach diminishes and the numbing of affect becomes more and more evident. As a consequence such children experience themselves as unwanted, are unable to trust the permanency of the adoptive relationship and often demonstrate emotional disturbances and behavioral problems which recalls the symptoms that both Hvistendahl (2013) and Cameron, Erkal, Gangadharan, & Meng (2013) have argued for in respect to Chinese one child family children. Here then, was a critical link between the two phenomena experienced by adopted children and those of one-child policy children reared by other than their natural parents which the critical reader is asked to consider here.
According to Verrier (1991) the points provided below serve as landmarks that are pertinent in understanding abandonment in the separation process between mother and child that help explain that experience. They are offered here without elaboration in the hope that they help to promote critical consideration in interested readers in the convergence of the two phenomena - adopted children on the one hand and one-child policy children reared by grandparents in China on the other. Through this approach, the reader is led to consider the merits of the proposition made, but is free to accept or not each point as their knowledge, experience and consciousness dictates. The freedom offered through this approach is a necessary and an important one when dealing with questions of cultural capital where asking readers to accept the assumption in totality can be threatening when considered from the perspective of revealing their deeper meanings about emotional and actual investment to the group.
The significance of this approach has been made abundantly clear time and again in research literature and is known as the Hawthorne effect (Franke & Kaul, 1978). The Hawthorne effect describes return of false data when respondents are acutely aware that they are being observed, and the responses may have implications on policy and relationship structures such as cultural or nationalistic ones in this instance.
For Verrier (1991) the following milestones are seen as fundamental in the experience of adopted children which the critical readers is now invited to consider with respect to one-child policy children in China:
The connection established during the nine months in utero, is a profound connection, and the severing of that connection between the child and biological mother causes a primal or narcissistic wound which often manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationships with significant others.
The awareness, whether conscious or unconscious, that the original separation was the result of relinquishment affects the adoptee's sense of Self, self-esteem and self-worth.
Adopted children experience the environment as hostile and their bond to the mother as transitory.
Separated children may also unconsciously experience themselves as having been somehow lacking or unworthy of their birth parents' love and protection.
The abandonment provides a memory trace which at any time can be repeated. And, such children go through life feeling as if at any time the process might repeat.
As a result of the fear of further abandonment, can result in the child becoming angry and dysfunctional.
Children who have been abandoned have an early awareness that they need to be cautious, alert and watchful - a response which is called hyper-vigilance. This gives them the means by which to try to avoid another abandonment, but it does little to foster the true Self of the individual. It instead creates a false self.
The adoption itself for children isn't a concept to be learned, a theory to be understood or an idea to be developed. It is a real experience about which they have had and are having recurring and conflicting feelings, all of which are legitimate.
The first three years of life are important in the emotional development of children. While many of us remember very little about the first three years of our lives. The lack of memory does not mean that those three years had no impact on us, on our personalities, perceptions and attitudes.
While in the literature there is no differentiation made between the terms mother and primary caregiver. The suggestion that the mother could be replaced by another primary caregiver does not happen without psychological consequences for both mother and child.
A child can certainly attach to another caregiver, but rather than a secure, serene feeling of oneness, the attachment in the adoptive relationship may be de facto replacement.
The substitute replacement mother is not a substitute for the initial post-natal bonding and imprinting experiences that are a necessary condition in the continuum process between a mother and child.
If the imprinting is prevented from taking place, such as when a child is given over to another the stimulus to imprint, if not responded to by the expected meeting with the baby, gives way to a state of grief for both mother and child.
While most adopted children form attachments to their adoptive mothers because their survival depends upon this, the loss of bonding experienced by the infant with mother is a loss of not just the mother, but a loss of part of the Self.
The primitive relationship with the mother which occurs after physical separation and which protects and nurtures the child in the new and alien world outside the womb, is denied the adopted child. In fact he has learned that the environment is hostile, the mother may disappear and love can be withdrawn.
If the mother cannot be counted on to be the whole environment for the child, what happens is that the child begins to take over for her. This phenomenon is often referred to as premature ego development. Rather than a gradual, well-timed developmental process, the child is forced by this wrenching experience of premature separation to be a separate being, to form a separate ego before he should have had to do so.
Premature ego development can have "survival value". In compensating the survival value brings with it hyper vigilance and anxiety and takes away the serenity and safety of that primal mother/child relationship.
Rather than trusting the permanence of the caregiver, many adoptees talk about always feeling as if they couldn't count on anyone and having to be self-sufficient in life.
The anxiety produced by the uncertainty of the permanence of the mother-figure often manifests in two diametric behavior patterns: provocative, aggressive and impulsive; or withdrawn, compliant and acquiescent.
Though the psychological effects of childhood trauma may only become apparent in later years, the actual damage to the personality has been there since childhood, even though it may be masked by a superficial adjustment.
A child's perception of the adoptive mother vacillates between her being seen as the rescuing mother and as the abandoning mother which a child can exploit this split to their advantage.
As a rescuing mum, the adoptive mother may give in and allow the child to misbehave in order to regain his love. Or, feeling rejected herself, she may act in an angry, rejecting manner towards him, thus setting up a vicious cycle of rejection, anger, anxiety and capitulation; resulting in a confusion of inconsistency and acting out.
In the role of abandoning mum where the child, having been told that he is "special," feels that he has to be perfect in order to retain the love and acceptance of his parents. This need to be special can put a great deal of pressure on the child to live up to some perceived expectations which are frequently unattainable. This often leaves the child feeling inadequate and worthless, a reinforcement of his feelings of having failed his first mother.
The need to be perfect for the "rescuing" parents makes the child suppress his own true self in order to submit to the wishes of his parents. This seems imperative to his survival: "You have to be good or you're gotten rid of."
The daily dilemma for the child is acute because they desperately need love and affection, yet this seems dangerous to them. His need to defend against further devastation causes him to initiate a distancing response to bonding.
Some children respond to this early loss by acting out in aggressive, provocative and impulsive ways, while others do so by withdrawing and acting in a compliant, acquiescent manner. Both are wounded, but each is responding to the pain and anxiety in a different way. Each has the same wish for love and acceptance and each has the same fears of rejection and abandonment. One pushes for the inevitable and the other guards against it. In neither case is the child operating from his true Self, but from a false self, which he (probably unconsciously) believes helps protect him from further hurt, rejection and disappointment.
For children who truly cannot be taken care of by their biological families, adoption is still the best solution, but it is imperative that adoptive parents, clinicians and society in general begin to acknowledge the complexity of that solution.
It is important to recognize that all adoptees by definition have suffered a traumatic loss at the beginning of their lives and that that experience has or will impact all their subsequent relationships.
The importance of the above milestones provided by Verrier (1991), individually and in sum, are to be found in sketching out the vital boundaries of the physical, mental and emotional states, the boundaries themselves, of the abandonment process and the negative outcomes they can produce. The similarities and differences between abandonment experiences of adopted children and one-child policy children when explicated, are illustrative of a deeper societal problem where policies of expediency prioritize one set of solutions to a perceived immediate social problem at the expense of wider human future costs. Therefore, by solving one problem without a thorough understanding of underlying causes that produced them, as well as the interconnectedness between operational variables, we risk creating yet new problems we are at a loss to understand and will need to solve again.
While labels and stereotypes such as "little emperors' and the "selfish generation" raise awareness to a social problem, they are not at all instructive in sociological terms. At best, they offer convenient ways to explain away phenomena that is yet to fully manifest itself. At the same time, the present approach offers access to alternative schemas that can help readers enlighten a problem whose solution is not incompatible with other approaches.
By way of summary, the alternative narrative proposed here would argue that the overt practice of leaving children in the care of grandparents or significant others for reasons of tradition or convention soon after birth on the one hand, and on the other, doing so covertly for reasons of employment in the example of migration poses an important social problem. For both, the social dilemma that is unleashed concerns not only the separation trauma in perceived conscious or unconscious feelings of abandonment by the child, but also touch on the necessary cultural clash between generations of competing world views that can be difficult for a child to reconcile leading to confusion.
This problem is particularly acute so far as China is concerned because each generation in the explored policy period has experienced a quite different China from the other. This is precisely the point that Michel Foucault (1966) has made in the concept of "regimes of truth" that claims a certain interpretation to be right and true, while ignoring or discrediting critics and dissenting narratives. Such "truths" are said to be produced, maintained and reproduced by so-called social experts, professional journalists and academics who contribute to forging a consensus around a particular world "truth". Truth in Foucault's reckoning is therefore embedded within a given power structure that shifts through various epochs throughout history. Thereby, the problem for the "little emperor" generation is not on account of a singularity of truth the result of policy, but one of multiple competing truths for reasons of generational gap resulting from child rearing practices.
Finally, while the convergence factors between cause and effect cycles among adopted children and the behavioral problems manifest in one-child policy children was instructive, the deeper social costs might yet be further down the road. Verrier (1991) pertinently asks us to consider the following statistics with regard to adopted children which the critical reader is further asked to consider and follow up on with respect to the Chinese one-child policy children:
The statistics are staggering. Although adoptees make up only 2 to 3% of the population, statistics consistently indicate that 30 to 40% of those children found in special schools, juvenile hall and residential treatment centers are adopted. Adopted children have a higher incidence of juvenile delinquency, sexual promiscuity and running away from home than their non-adopted peers. They also have more difficulty in school, both academically and socially (Verrier, 1991).
Notes: Migrant-worker Population Hits 262 Million, China Daily, May 27, 2013.
Cameron, L, Erkal, N, Gangadharan, L, and Meng, X. (2013). "Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China's One-Child Policy". Science 22 February 2013: 953-957.
Foucault, M (1966), The Order of Things, London, Vintage Books.
Franke, R H & Kaul, J D (1978). "The Hawthorne experiments: First statistical interpretation", American Sociological Review vol 43 pp 623-643.
Hvistendahl, M (2013). "Making a Selfish Generation by Fiat", Science, January 11, 2013. Vol 339 no 6116, p 131.
Shanghai Women's Union (2009), Raising by the grandparents", Shanghai Women's Union. Shanghai.
Verrier, N (1991), "The Primal Wound: Legacy - The Effects of Separation from the Birthmother on Adopted Children". Presented at the American Adoption Congress International Convention April 11-14, 1991. Garden Grove, California.
Winnicott, D (1966), The Family and Individual Development, New York, Basic Books.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Dr Toni Momiroski is an academic on sabbatical leave from Siam University in Thailand, currently moonlighting at Xi'an University in China. These institutions are not responsible nor do they necessarily share the views expressed by the writer of this article.