Why Parents Stick with What They Know

Decades of family preferences hold tight in U.S. and China.

Posted Feb 06, 2014

As families in many countries around the world move in the direction of having one child, China, after 30+ years of strictly enforcing a one-child policy, relaxed the mandate — with a caveat. But, it appears likely that many couples of childbearing age are likely to stick with what they know.

In the past, a Chinese couple could have a second child if both parents were only children. The change in the family planning policy permits a second child if one of the parents is an only child. While seeming to grant families more options, the change in policy still fundamentally limits couples’ rights to choose.

In defense of the small tweak to the one-child policy, Mao Qun’an, spokesperson for the Ministry of National Health and Family Planning Commission, said, “Experts have worried that if every family is allowed to have a second child then there might be a peak in population. If all of a sudden a lot more kids are born in a certain year, education, employment, and others will be affected. That’s why we adjust it gradually and smoothly. This is to avoid the impact population peak might bring.”

Olympics Ceremony Designer Fined $1.2 Million

Mao Qun’an’s worry over population growth is apparently unwarranted, and is seen as a symbolic shift by many experts. Specifically, most families won’t be affected by the change in policy. However, just weeks after China made these changes, one of the most public condemnations of violating laws came to light: Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, known as the artistic force behind the lavish 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, was slapped with what is labeled a “social maintenance fee” of 7.5 million yuan ($1.2 million), after having a third child with his wife. Authorities said the steep fine was based on the couples’ combined incomes.

It appears that despite the Chinese government’s public spotlight on Zhang Yimou and his wife, most Chinese couples are unlikely to have three or even two children. Demographic expert He Yafu told The Financial Times, “Nowadays young couples are not willing to have a second child. In Shanghai, only eight percent of couples who met the previous policy to have a second child actually applied to have one,” he reported. He also pointed out that Shanghai’s fertility rate, at under 1.0, indicates that couples don’t even want one child, much less two.

Sticking with What You Know 

In the U.S., the overarching view is that two children are better than having one. That belief has created the perceived model of the two-child family as the most desirable. According to the Pew Research Center, “When Americans are asked what is the ideal number of children for a family, the most popular answer, according to the survey, is 'two' — as it has been since the 1970s.” While Americans aspire to having two children, more and more families are having one child. Nonetheless, there is no shortage of staunch believers in having two or more children and who are happy to criticize couples who choose to have one.

Like Americans who feel a family with two children is the ideal family size, one child has been the typical (and mandated) family size for more than three decades in China. Many who are starting or having children now feel one child is best for them — it is what Chinese people know. Although the current male-to-female ratio in China is unbalanced at around 122 boys to 100 girls (potentially creating a group of 35 million men for which there will be no female partners), the new allowance in the one-child law will probably make little difference in Chinese childbearing patterns in the foreseeable future.

It seems near impossible to change deeply held cultural preferences whether they are socially created in America or government controlled in China. China’s minor law change will hopefully, if nothing else, stop the horrific forced abortions, fines, and sheer terror the one-child policy evoked among its population.

Related: Is Having Babies Recession-Proof?; Is China's One Child Policy Necessary? ; Are Boys More Desirable Than Girls?; Who’s Telling Whom How Many Kids to Have?


Anonymous. “China fines Zhang Yimou $1.2m over one-child policy breach.” BBC.com. 9 January 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-25664014 

Hornby, Lucy. “China baby boom fears outweigh evidence of falling fertility rates.” FT.com. 19 November 2013. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/4f1557fa-5109-11e3-b499-00144feabdc0.html

McLaughlin, Kathleen E. “China and the worst-ever, man-made gender gap.” GlobalPost.com. 3 January 2013. http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/china/110615/china-and-the-worst-ever-man-made-gender-gap

Waldmeir, Patti. “China’s ‘one-child’ rethink marks symbolic shift.” FT.com. 15 November 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7bed3f70-4dfa-11e3-8fa5-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=intl#axzz2kjLNARdL

Waldmeir, Patti. “Film director Zhang Yimou fined $1.2m for one-child policy breach.” FT.com. 9 January 2014. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/04de31c2-7916-11e3-91ac-00144feabdc0.html

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