Educational Psychology Professor Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper recently conducted and published a meta-analysis of research into China’s only children.
Though in October 2015, China announced that it will allow two children for every couple, effectively dismantling its one-child policy, the one-child policy had been in effect since the late 1970s. Falbo and Hooper’s research uncovered that in certain contexts the country’s only children have benefited from less psychopathology, like anxiety and depression.
“Broadly speaking, there’s a slight advantage for China’s only children in terms of symptoms of psychopathology,” explained Professor of Educational Psychology Falbo. But the findings vary based on whether the only children meet social expectations.
“We quantitatively synthesized the results of 22 studies that compared Chinese only children to their peers. When the sample was college students, only children had lower psychopathology. When the sample consisted of military recruits, however, only children reported more symptoms of psychopathology,” explained Falbo.
The researchers interpret this difference in terms of meeting expectations consistent with social class. In 1979, China began instituting a one-child policy, which, alongside other national policies, was aimed at accelerating the country’s economic development. China began incentivizing parents to invest in quality over quantity with regards to children, providing one-child families with benefits like extra pay and priority in schools. By 2005, the percentage of women aged 35 to 44 with just one child was nearly 80% in large cities like Shanghai. The birth rate in smaller western provinces also dropped, with families having 2-3 children rather than 4-5.
“Only children in China are more likely to be born to educated parents who push them harder to succeed. Those who make it to college meet parental and societal expectations,” said Falbo. Yet if the only children aren’t accepted into college and join the military instead, they suffer more from anxiety and depression than their peers with siblings, who tend to be from working class communities. “The Chinese army prefers recruits from Red Class, who are rural and working class,” said Falbo.
“The advantage the only child may have over a child with siblings in a college setting is reversed in the military setting, according to the data,” explained Falbo. She says that despite this finding, only children still have a chance to adjust to a military environment.
“China’s one-child policy [was] unique in the world and its effects are different from what we see in the U.S., where people have just one child for more personal reasons, such as divorce, rather than political reasons,” explained Falbo.
Falbo and graduate student Hooper conducted a meta-analysis, collecting 22 previous studies of China’s only children, which featured 23 research samples, and studied their results. Their overall analysis, “China’s Only Children and Psychopathology: A Quantitative Synthesis,” shows that China’s only children are more likely to have educated parents and, though they do receive more resources, attention and education, they are not coddled. Instead, they have high expectations and more pressures placed upon them by parents and society for educational and career success.
China’s Only Children and Psychopathy: A Quantitative Synthesis was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.