The Independent Child as a “Relational Being”
On Jan 29, Wang Meng, a former student of Peking University, published a fifteen-thousand-word letter of “indictment” attributing his emotional distance from his parents to their authoritarian parental control. In the letter, Wang used “relentlessness, insularity, coldness, selfishness” to characterize the parents’ “unbridled acts of manipulation.” Wang is now pursuing a PhD. degree in Psychology in the U.S. and hasn’t gone home for Chinese New Year for 12 years.
Since the one-child policy in 1979, popular discourse in the Chinese media has criticized the generation of singletons for failing to internalize the prevailing Chinese value of filial obedience.
In her anthropological work Parent-Child Communication Problems and the Perceived Inadequacies of Chinese Only Children, Vanessa L. Fong points out that the “illusion” of the only children as an exceptional whole, solely due to the symbolic meanings imbued with their singleton status, needs to be reexamined. Instead, Chinese singletons’ inability to meet their parents’ expectations is “shared with many other children worldwide, as rapidly developing children in a rapidly changing world.” This claim is offered in support of the challenging task of adapting to a rapidly transforming Chinese society in the last decades of the 20th century.
As the sudden release of market force came into public life in the late 1980s, parents aimed to prepare their children to obtain an “upward mobility” for socioeconomic success in a “competitive global capitalist economy.” From five case studies, Fong observes that the process through which children fulfill their parents’ expectations are obfuscated by the degrees from which the demand of a mere “replication” of their expectations differ from an “improvement” that “would make [the children] better adjusted to the contemporary socioeconomic conditions than their parents were.”
The stereotype of the self-centered only-child is, perhaps, a measure of how difficult it is for parents to reconcile with their children’s growing sense of independence.
In response to Wang’s letter, Zhao Zhongxin stated that “the child’s independence is in perpetual conflict with the parents’ desire to control them.” As a professor at Peking Normal University who focuses on family education, Zhao explained that a successful family education is disrupted by the exploitative measures of early education, lack of cultivation of children’s characters, and parents’ roles as a contracted mechanism of the school.
Each of the three elements renders what parents hope their children will become, “partially fragmented, partially integrated” according to Fong’s analysis. Children, in turn, become susceptible to the impossibility of meeting the demands that their parents set. For instance, while parents never cease to make comparisons between their children and “those of the other households” (bie ren jia de hai zi), the fierce competition that Chinese children are subjected to is exacerbated because of the lack of an independent character and a strengthened will.
In her book The Power and Ambiguity of Love, Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo refers to this conflict as “the basic anthropological constant of perishing.” Specifically, the mother’s sense of loss of self-identity as her child develops independence is expressed as the question: “how to let go while holding on tight?” In turn, Gandolfo perceives: “with great love comes great vulnerability.”
By discovering the complexity of a mother’s love in an “interdependent system” where maternal efforts interact with forces beyond the mother’s control and are thus vulnerable to unintended consequences, Gandolfo realizes that the conflict assumed in the “interdependence of human existence” renders a condition for “human virtue, desire, love, and joy.”
Similarly, Zhao gave parenting advice that directs away from the projected success of children in society, but of children as not only independent individuals but also “relational beings.” In other words, “parents need to understand that ‘my children are not me, even though they are of me.’”