The one-child policy has been blamed for everything from a shortage of brides to an epidemic of childhood obesity – but, to judge from Chinese television, the bigger worry is that it has created a generation of wimps.
Dad, Where Are We Going? is a reality television show that shot to mainland fame recently because it taps into middle-class angst about whether China is raising its children right. The kids on the show are hardly more than toddlers, and they are sent off with Dad to – among other things – live in a tent in the deserts of central China and forage for food in a peasant village.
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Is a generation raised on iPads and junk food up to the rigours of the camp stove and the camp potty? And more to the point, is Dad up to it?
Many would argue that the last thing to expect from reality TV is a dose of social reality, but this show seems more authentic than most – perhaps because the main characters are children so young that they do not know enough to hide it when they want to act like spoiled brats.
The dads, all of whom are Chinese celebrities and some of whom are television actors in "real" life, are inevitably less candid than their kids. After one little girl whines for nearly an entire show, her Olympic gold medallist father alludes to how he might be tempted to just whack her if they were in the privacy of their own home – but, with the whole country watching, he thinks the wiser course is a quick cuddle.
Like much on Chinese television, this is a copy of a foreign show – a South Korean series about celebrity dads and their offspring. But in China, besides merely testing whether famous dads can boil water and tie shoelaces (they can't), it also has a deeper resonance.
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The country is now raising its second generation of "little emperors" – only children, often born to parents who are themselves only children – and everybody wants to know if they are going to end up even more spoiled, immature and selfish than their overindulged parents.
A recent survey by China Youth Daily found most viewers watch the show for what they can learn about balancing the pressures of work and child-rearing – and only a quarter for a peek at celebrity family life.
Last month the show even became the subject of an academic seminar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, which urged parents of "little emperors" to give them more independence – and get Dad more involved in child-rearing.
Many western parents follow a simple policy when choosing their parenting style: they just do the opposite of what their own parents did. Dad, Where Are We Going? seems to encourage China's newest generation of parents to do that, too: launch a counter-revolution in Chinese parenting by refusing to coddle, pamper and overprotect their kids – or, at least, not to the degree that they themselves were coddled, pampered and overprotected.
The tough love starts in episode one, when Dads and tots go off to live in peasant homes with everything from goats in the courtyard to hairy spiders on the bedclothes. The kids have to be peeled away from their iPads and their dads, prompting marathon tantrums from pampered participants.
But, by the end of that episode, even the most coddled had gone off on a village-wide scavenger hunt to assemble the fixings for dinner and returned bursting with the pride of a job well done – and done by themselves.
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Later, they all go off by camel to pitch a tent in the desert, pretending like all good parents everywhere that the children are actually helping pitch the tent rather than merely being annoying. One of the dads has his thumb smashed while pretending to let his son hammer in a tent peg. And another sends his son off to find out how to light the camp stove – but when the child returns brimming with the new knowledge, he ignores him (parenting 101, anyone?).
One begins to wonder which generation it is we are meant to be worried about. For, apart from one three-year-old – probably too young to be subjected to tent torture anyway – the rest of the kids grew up monumentally in the few short weeks between the peasant village and the desert.
They ended up seeming no more spoiled than any toddlers anywhere – and less so than my own two teenagers when called upon recently to endure a camel ride in a Chinese desert (even without sleeping overnight there).
Maybe China's children are not in as much peril as the conventional wisdom – and their little emperor parents – would have it. But just wait until they become teenagers.