Mental Health Condition of the Only-Child: A Study of Urban and Rural High School Students in China

By Liu, Chenying; Munakata, Tsunetsugu et al. | Adolescence, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Mental Health Condition of the Only-Child: A Study of Urban and Rural High School Students in China


Liu, Chenying, Munakata, Tsunetsugu, Onuoha, Francis N., Adolescence


Most psychologists have perceived the only-child as socially deprived (Hall, 1987). They are socially maladjusted, and attention and dependence seeking (Jiao et al., 1986). Two 1972 U.S. public opinion polls found that approximately 78% of white Americans thought that only-children were disadvantaged (Blake, 1974), and that they were more unsociable and aggressive than non-only children. Although studies such as Chow & Zhao's (1996) report that only-children are high academic achievers due to greater parental attention and educational investment, it seems that there were negative stereotypes about them, particularly during the pre-industrial baby-boom era. In contemporary times, there appears to be a favorable change of heart toward the only-child (Poston & Falbo, 1990; Taffel, 1997).

Jiao et al. (1986) stated that over 70% of families in major Chinese provinces are one-child homes due to the governmental single-child policy. The 4-2-1 parenting syndrome prevails in which four greatparents (grandfather/grandmother, paternal/maternal uncles) collaborate with the two direct parents in focusing attention on the only-child (Lee, 1992; Wang et al., 1998) who is perceived as the "spoiled brat" or the "little emperor."

An outline of the social environment in China that gave birth to the one-child policy seems expedient. At the inception of the communist Beijing regime in 1949, living conditions flourished to an extent. The concept of "more children, more affluence" provided the catalyst for a baby-boom. Accompanied by a decline in food supply, housing, medical services, and educational facilities, the baby-boom soon became a social problem. In 1979, China introduced the "one child for one couple" policy to keep population growth at a 1.2 billion benchmark (Jiao et al., 1986). Alongside this policy, the government initiated trade liberalization programs to stimulate the economy. In this new market economy, nuclear families rapidly emerged in urban centers (Sonoda, 1994) wherein male family heads and their wives worked outside the home for wages.

Social "push" and "pull" factors account for rural-urban migration in China (Zhao, 1999). The first are forces of rural impoverishment that compel individuals to involuntarily migrate to urban settlements; the second are urban incentives of better living conditions that motivate individuals to willfully move to cities. However, whether push or pull, the unhidden imperatives in that mobility are often the economics of material wealth acquisition (Cheng & Selden, 1994). "If a family works 12 hours a day, seven days a week, poorly paid and despised by neighbors--what will happen? Mental breakdown" (Frost, 2004). This is the reality of many of China's 100 million immigrant urban workers; they live in solitary conditions, far from their extended families, and are discriminated against by neighbors (Chunguang, 2004). Motivated by wang zi cheng long--the materialist values to succeed (Ho, 1989)--urban parents toil long hours in cities to support not only themselves but their loved ones in the rural community. Chinese urban parents value quality education (Poston & Falbo, 1990); most urban children often stay late at school in order to be able to excel at college. Siblings, in these circumstances, lack adequate opportunities to experience sufficient love awareness/emotional support from parents (Wang & Hsueh, 1997).

Wang zi cheng long values are relatively weak in rural China where two or more generations cohabit in extended family relationships (Lee, 1992). Kinship and community bonds are much stronger than in urban centers. There is less preoccupation with and pressure from contractual jobs. Siblings tend to receive greater attention from parents and significant others (Tobin et al., 1989).

Munakata (1997) identified love awareness from others as a basic desire. Love awareness is defined as the consciousness of emotional support, recognition, and empathy from significant others. …

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