There are benefits to being an only-child, though China shows us that having a choice is all that matters, writes Jane Bradley
IT is a debate which plagues parents in this country throughout their childbearing years.
Are we one and done? Or do we want two, three or four children? Or more? Or in the case of one particular family starring in a Channel Four documentary, do we keep going to number 16?
We wonder how each extra child will impact on the family – physically, emotionally and financially. Are “only” children really sad, lonely, antisocial oddballs? Do all middle children feel neglected by their parents? And will the eldest be old enough to be used for free babysitting when the youngest is still tiny?
In China, however, until now, this has not been an issue. And even today, the debate remains limited.
For while the controversial one-child policy has finally been scrapped, it has, of course, been replaced by a new set of regulations: the two-child policy.
Both policies aim to control the spiralling population. It is estimated that since 1979, it has prevented the birth of 400 million children in China. But now, the population is ageing. More young people are needed. Cue the change in rules.
Dictatorships, particularly Communist ones, have long had a bit of an obsession with controlling the birth rate – in both directions.
In Romania, under the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, women were banned from using birth control or having abortions. Young women were checked at their workplace every three months for signs of pregnancy and any pregnant woman who failed to “produce” a baby at the proper time could expect to be summoned for questioning by the secret police.
Some families in China are rejoicing over this week’s change in law and cannot wait to get down to the business of producing a sibling for their cosseted only offspring, but others, conditioned by 36 years of one-child families, are unfussed. Experts have warned that many families may not choose to have a second child – having been conditioned to believe that the economic impact of bringing up more than one could be detrimental. Since the policy was introduced in 1979, parents have, to a certain extent, enjoyed having extra cash available to lavish on their offspring. Their focus – for urban families at least – has turned to ensuring that their one child is well educated and wants for nothing.
A relaxation of the policy two years ago – allowing parents who are themselves only children to have a second baby – has resulted in a smaller number of babies than expected.
Psychologists have observed the effects of the policy on Chinese children over the years.
They have found that the whole concept of extended families – aunts, uncles and cousins – has disappeared from the country over the course of not quite two generations. The words “brother and sister” have become synonymous with the word “cousin” as so few people have real siblings.
Generally, the consensus has been that while many Chinese children have thrived, others have felt stifled under the adoring focus of their parents.
And of course, in China, the policy has created other problems.
It is estimated that by 2020, due to the effects of the one-child policy, there will be around 30 million more men in China than women, due, it is believed to many families “disposing of” their firstborn if the baby was a girl. Other families made the heart-breaking decision to give up their daughter for adoption, with many sent to live with childless Western families in Europe and the United States.
Families have faced fines, forced abortions and sterilisations and sometimes even imprisonment, if they have breached the policy’s rules and had additional children.
At this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, Chinese author Xue Xinran spoke firsthand about the effect the policy has had on China’s children. She told of a nation of “little emperors” who have been mollycoddled beyond everything reasonable – citing the tale of a young Chinese man who had stayed with her in London who had not managed to pack – or even open – his own suitcase, so reliant was he on his doting mother.
She told of another boy who stared at a potato for 20 minutes when asked to slice it, completely bemused by even the most basic household task.
But this is not the consequence of a nation of only-children per se, but a nation of parents who have turned family life into a daily act of worship.
This is not how only-children have to be.
I have to declare an interest here: I am an only-child myself – and I have an only-child. Both I and my daughter are singletons out of a certain amount of parental choice, although in both cases it was not an easy decision and related to individual hiccups with pregnancy and birth which made the prospect of a second child less than straightforward.
My husband and I are happy with our family gang of three and are able to enjoy spending time with our daughter in a way that would be more difficult if we had more than one.
That’s not to say that there aren’t advantages of a large family. Of course there are, but there are also often-forgotten upsides of a smaller family unit.
I have to admit that in an ideal world, I would have liked a sibling – I had rose-tinted visions of a gang of close-knit brothers and sisters with whom I would have Swallows and Amazons-style adventures – but in practice, not everyone’s experience is idyllic.
I have friends who grew up hating their siblings, but who are now the best of friends; others who got on swimmingly with their brothers and sisters as children but now barely speak. There are those who have not fallen out, but as adults, have little connection with their sibilings on a day-to-day basis.
Ironically, had I had a sibling, I would probably have enjoyed a far more elaborate toy cupboard than I had as the daughter of parents desperate not to create a spoiled only child.
But despite almost half of British families now consisting of only one child, as the parent of a singleton, I am constantly met with bemusement from two-child parents who cannot comprehend why I am not planning to pop out a second. Presumably they face the same interrogation from three child familes and those with four children.
Unsolicited reasons given that our decision to stick at one could damage my daughter range from the burden later in life of her having to look after her ageing parents alone – there’s nothing like planning ahead – to fears that my poor, deprived offspring may spend her childhood sitting at home, miserably staring at the walls while her friends are up to larks and high jinks with their siblings.
Meanwhile, in reality, they are probably slamming each others’ heads off the wall and stuffing Lego bricks up their siblings’s nostrils.
It is true that the new generation of Chinese children may enjoy a camerarderie with their brother or sister which previous generations have missed out on. Their children, in turn, will have cousins and family celebrations will become noisier and more vibrant.
But some families who choose to take the plunge to two children may find that they miss the close-knit unit that their one-child family brought.
Either way, the most important thing is that they now have that choice, however limited it remains.