The Loneliness of a 3rd Generation Only Child

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A mainland Chinese student visited my office last week, asking for a letter of recommendation for his transfer to another university. It is hard to lose a student like this—enthusiastic and bright, the sort who sits on the front row of a large auditorium lecture class and asks good questions.

He gave the usual reasons for wanting to transfer: he liked Pepperdine, of course, but it did not offer the technically specialized majors he or his parents were seeking. When asked where he was applying, he listed some elite east-coast schools, but he seemed most interested in two Hong Kong universities. When asked why, he mentioned a girlfriend, but emphasized that he had a cousin back in China to whom he was extremely close: “he is like a brother to me.” 

Since our conversation I keep returning in my thoughts to this student’s strong tie to his cousin. It is not unusual for cousins to be very close, of course, but that is not what is so striking in this case. I have been privileged to know many mainland Chinese students over the last two decades at Pepperdine, but none has ever mentioned so much as a brother or a sister, much less a cousin. On one side of this student’s family, his grandparents brought two children into the world in the teeth of a one-child policy backed by a totalitarian state. I don’t know any details of how they managed it—through connections, wealth, or endurance amid persecution—only that they did. In bearing the cost, they realized a gift for themselves, and perhaps were aware that they were giving each of their children the gift of a sibling. I wonder if they realized what a gift they were giving to their grandson: a cousin who was “like a brother” to someone who had no brother or sister. 

China’s one-child policy has stripped the social space between the state and the individual of every protection that the most natural community, the family, can provide. How much more damaging must be the collapse of family size in Chinese culture, in which family ties have played such an important role? I know I’m not saying anything new (see Nick Eberstadt on the economic effects of the policy), but we cannot remind ourselves too often of what is lost as family sizes have collapsed (through state coercion or, more sadly, voluntarily).

As American family sizes shrink we get a glimpse of the losses, but we may not be aware of the extent of the social damage caused by a one-child policy (or the one-child norm that some would foist upon us). Here is some rough math. If we assume that everyone gets married and has the same number of children—big assumptions I know, but they give a sense of the social stakes in family size—the table below gives the number of relatives (up to first cousins) in a steady state:

1We don’t need a chart to see that a reduction in family size reduces the number of siblings, but the fact that the number of parents and grandparents is stable may distract us from the collapse in the number of aunts/uncles and cousins. For example, when average family size falls from four to three, each person loses a sibling, of course, but he or she also loses four aunts and uncles and twelve cousins. The collapse to one child wipes out the siblings, but it also wipes out the aunts/uncles and cousins.

A family tree with many branches functions as a broad social safety net: when average family size falls from three to two there are only half as many aunts and uncles to lean on, to visit, to identify with, to support you when things go wrong and rejoice with you when things go right. When average family size is one there is little family left to protect you and to belong to. The modern fantasy—society as disconnected individuals under a tutelary state—becomes grimly plausible.

My children have sixteen first cousins and twelve aunts and uncles. This past Thanksgiving, almost all of us just fit into a large beach house in Virginia Beach. My Chinese student’s one cousin has made me aware of the gift of community my parents, grandparents, wife, and siblings have given me. When my wife and I brought each of our three children into the world, we were well aware that we were giving the gift of a brother or sister to our other children. At the time, however, I did not fully appreciate how much the gift was multiplied. Each of our children was a gift of a niece or nephew twelve times over, and the gift of a cousin sixteen times over. 

The family is most local of all communities, and its decline is at least as great a social calamity as the commercialization of culture and the state organization of society. In the case of the family, at least, it is in our power to effect something of a restoration. Offer friendly correction to those who criticize large families, who think even three children is imprudent and irresponsible.  If you are young (and married!), no doubt you can think of many valid reasons not to have another child. You are not obligated to have as many children as you physically can, of course. Don’t rely on the culture’s norms in making decisions about family size, though: the culture will confirm your evaluation of the costs of more children, but it is blind to the great gift you are giving to your children and your descendants. When you have another child, you fill out the tree, and help to restore the culture.

Originally posted on Front Porch Republic

Andrew Yuengert
Andrew M. Yuengert has a Ph.D. in Economics from Yale University and is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University.