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I was flipping through this lifestyle/family magazine and an article caught my eye. It was a piece about non-standard family models: two parents, one child and two grandparents; a single mother with child; a family with two children. Now there were a few things about it (apart from the maudlin idealisation of all the described people) that I thought were noteworthy and indicative of social changes.

The title of the article. Don't worry, you're going to see more of them.

First and foremost, the obvious thing. Everyone knows about the Chinese one-child policy, and stories are heard about forced abortions or sterilisations etc. True. But in that case how come that almost every time I talk to a Chinese person, they tell me about their siblings? Is the law only the letter? Not at all. But there are ways to go around it. Farmers are allowed to have more children because they need hands to help in the fields. In cities, if both parents come from single-child families, they can have two. And lastly, if you’re rich, you can always have your second kid somewhere where the one-child policy doesn’t apply, for example in Hong Kong.

Another point is the growing diversity of accepted family models in China – we tend to regard it as a very traditional society and in many ways it is so. But this article shows that grandparents living with adult children is not a norm anymore (on one hand) and with a growing number of divorces single parents are not such a rare sight either (on the other).

The prevailing shape of the basic social cell is this: the father, the mother – and the child, on whom all hopes and all attention is piled. This phenomenon has a name: The Little Emperor. A child who has up to six adults at his or hers beck and call. What happens when you’ve got a whole country of siblingless kids? Well, for one thing – they get fat. While it’s still not a common sight, you get to see more and more 10-year-olds the size of little tanks, who race with booming steps to the nearest McDonald’s or a sweets stand, while their tiny, wispy mothers trail behind them with wallets in their hands. For Chinese New Year they’ll get red envelopes filled with banknotes, for birthdays – Ipods and Iphones, and when grandparents come to visit, they’ll stuff them with buns and sweets to make them plump (the older generation, as in many other countries, still condoning to the traditional belief that well-fed means healthy). I’ve been told that in some cases mothers will even visit their children in the student dorms to do their laundry. Even if it’s just an urban myth, it wouldn’t be too far away from the truth.

But there’s another side to it. In a country such as China, with a population bigger than it can provide for (well, at least the way the government goes about it), there’s an enormous pressure on these kids to perform well at school. Competition to get into the best universities is unimaginable. You have to start early if you want to succeed. So the children do nothing but study all days long: classes, private tuition, English lessons starting when they’re 3, plus all the extracurricular pursuits like music or sports – because they teach you perseverance, they look good on applications, and frankly: it’s just awesome if you can brag that your 10-year-old can play Beethoven. In a normal kindergarten children hear: “You’ll get a sticker if you can name this colour”. Here a friend of mine works in a kindergarten named (forebodingly) Children’s University, where she’s required to urge them: “Go on, you’ll get a sticker if you can tell me who was Leonardo DaVinci”.

So there’s this strange and paradoxical system of up-bringing, where you have a shocking unconscious carelessness towards babies, who are allowed to walk almost freely on a busy street and almost neglected (family quality time-wise), mixed with obsessive love and giving them “everything we didn’t have”. You have parents who work all the time to ensure their offspring has the best possible start, but precisely because of that they rarely have time to see it. In their turn those well-provided-for darlings have to cram, cram, cram and cram, to better themselves and give face to the parents. But then – what else can they do, if without it they can have no future?

In view of all this, I was surprised to see that the article promoted a more “Western” approach: let your child be a child, spend more time with them, encourage their creativity instead of trying to mould them into a given shape. Would this be a sign of oncoming changes in society? Obviously a lifestyle magazine like this is targeted at the wealthiest strata of the society, so it’s not going to affect the masses – but it’s interesting to notice how some ideas are seeping through. It remains to be seen if growing up in a nurturing environment will become a luxury to be enjoyed by privileged children, or if it will gradually trickle down to the middle classes.

PS: Of course everything written above applies to urban children. Child rearing in the country is an altogether different and sadder story.