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Fueling Stereotypes — A Cautionary Tale

New “Little Emperor" traits misleading unless you read carefully.

New information can quickly compound prevailing negative thinking about most any group that is plagued by stereotypes. Such is the case of an Australian research project that looked at only children born before and shortly after China instituted its one-child policy in 1979. The findings could add to the already too long list of unflattering labels surrounding only children everywhere…that is, if you don’t read carefully.

Australian researchers found that Chinese only children born under the then newly formed one-child policy who are now young adults “were significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious.”

The authors believe the findings will be magnified for only children born later under the ruling. Most troubling,however, is the fact that their claims will be generalized to only children in other countries.

Read Carefully

Yahoo News featured an article on this study, “Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy,” as did Bloomberg News, CNN, Huffington Post, Los Angles Times and Fox News that could leave the impression that only children are destined for difficulties. From Yahoo’s coverage:

“The research in some ways confirms stereotypes in the Chinese media about ‘Little Emperor Syndrome,’ which is the idea that a generation of only children in the country is growing up coddled and unsocialized. The seeming personality changes could have real-world impacts, the researchers say, creating a relatively risk-averse generation that may hinder innovation.”

Toni Fablo, a longtime researcher of only children and a professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, told the Associated Press that the study's findings “showed poor performance so consistently in virtually all measures.” Falbo was clear that she would have expected a more mixed picture and hopes for follow-up research.

The newly discovered “Little Emperor” traits revealed in this particular study in no way draw larger conclusions about only children in other parts of the world…or for that matter, only children raised much later in the one-child policy. It is too easy to assume the findings might apply to all only children.

A Cautionary Tale

The findings may only be useful in China, if at all. The possibility of adopting and assigning more negative traits to only children both within and outside China is especially worrisome since the trend toward having one child seems to be the direction couples are taking worldwide in most developed countries.

The impact of a specific policy, particularly from China whose culture is vastly different from that of other countries, and in one finite timeframe is unique and with limited application—possibly only to ignite a movement to end the government’s mandate. That the subjects of this study were born during the early phase of China’s one-child policy when parents had their fertility rights stripped and lived in fear of the authorities that enforced the law and forced abortions. Parental worry may have trickled down and affected their child’s attitudes and behaviors.

The study concludes:

“The effect of the policy on the behavior of people born long after the policy’s introduction may however differ from what we find here as later cohorts will have grown up with very limited extended family and in a society dominated by only children. Under such circumstances, we would expect that the policy’s effect would, if anything, be magnified."

On the contrary, more investigation might reveal quite the opposite as Chinese parents adjusted to and accepted the one-child mandate. A new study would also account for changes in rearing practices that have evolved over the last 34 years in China and elsewhere.

As more and more parents decide to have one child, we need a stronger focus on parenting approaches including the positive outcomes and benefits of not having siblings. We have ample evidence to show that only children do just fine — and that they have more similarities with children with siblings than differences. One study on a small group of 400 young adults is not enough to debunk what we know about positive only child outcomes or to influence family size decisions.


L. Cameron et al., “Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China’s One-Child Policy,” Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1230221, 2013.

Newman, Susan. “Is China’s One-Child Policy Necessary?” Psychology Today. 31 July 2012.

Pappas, Stephanie. “China’s One-Child Policy Creates ‘Little Emperors.’ Yahoo! News. 10 Jan. 2013.

Watt, Louise. “China's One-Child Policy: Study Finds 'Little Emperors' Cause Economic And Cultural Ramifications.” The Huffington Post.10 Jan. 2013.

Williams, Ruth. “Benefits of Siblings: Children born under China’s One-Child Policy exhibit more negative personality traits in adulthood than those born prior.” 10 Jan. 2013.

Copyright @ 2013 by Susan Newman

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