Death of Only Child Lu Lingzi Shattered Parents' Dreams

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"Rural people were more interested in helpers to work the farm and had more traditional values," said Falbo. "They would more likely want a son. Urban people were persuaded to have daughters. They are more worthwhile because they stay home."

But by the end of the 20th century, Chinese analysts began to be worried about the shrinking number of young workers and not enough children to take care of the elderly.

Some say phase-out of the one-child policy may be imminent.

According to a March report in Forbes magazine, the one-child rule has "disrupted Chinese society both socially and economically. On the social front, you have two generations of Chinese adults who never had the benefits of growing up in the competitive environment of siblings. In fact, they likely grew up in a pampered environment that tends to create a society of self-centered people."

But Falbo's research did not support the stereotypes.

"By and large these only children are not the little emperors they are made out to be," she said. "We looked at careful methodologies and counted factors like socio-economic status, and they do pretty well and are surprisingly like everyone else."

Parents are fined when they have a second child, and some argue that has kept the policy alive. "The local officials don't want to lose this possible money source," said Falbo. "But I think all the demographers and people who have done population studies say it's time to let it go."

Until then, cultural experts say all of a family's focus becomes the one child.

"Life in China is very family-centered," said Yuan Gao, director of the Asian Studies and Chinese programs at Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J.

"For [Lingzi's] parents this must be a heavy hit," said Gao, who emigrated from Shanghai in 1986 to study at the University of Wisconsin. "It's terrible in any culture, but more so under China's one-child policy. The blow to the family must be almost unbearable."

"In the West, when a child is born, they pick a name like Laura or Sarah. In a Chinese family, they take great care, choosing a name with words like 'hope' or 'healthy' or 'be prosperous'," he said. "Those kinds of words carry the hopes and expectations of parents for the incoming child."

Education is also paramount. Gao, who has spent 23 years at the school, said Peddie had seen a marked increase in applications from mainland China since taking the first student in 2005. As a result, he said, the selection rate for Chinese students is "much harder than Harvard."

He said parents like Lingzi's look for the freedom and creativity in education they cannot find in China.

"The living standards have changed so much, that people's expectations are higher," said Gao. "They look to the U.S."

"People find ways to afford it," he said. "They believe that if something is good for the education of children, they will sacrifice everything to do that. Parents will do almost anything to make that happen."

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