Amid Economic Opportunity, Adolescent Boys in Urban China Begin to Reconsider Centuries-Old Obligations to Family
As new economic reforms and opportunities unfold in China's cities, researchers at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Shandong Teachers University find that urban adolescent boys may be rethinking the importance of adhering to centuries-old family obligations.
Published in the January/February edition of the peer-reviewed journal Child Development, results of a survey of urban and rural adolescents show that teen boys in urban China expressed a weaker sense of obligation to support, assist and respect their family than other Chinese teens.
While traditional family bonds remain strong among all Chinese adolescents compared to those found in studies of American teens, the new findings suggest the powerful role of economics in shaping society and raise concerns about the care of China's seniors in coming decades.
This study is the first to examine the beliefs of a generation in China on the cusp of adulthood, as opposed to adults caring for aging parents. Adolescence is an ideal developmental stage at which to examine the potential impact of social change on family relationships and values, particularly the tradition of family obligation.
"As the first group of young people in recent history who expects to live their full adult lives in a market economy, contemporary Chinese adolescents and their attitudes regarding their family obligations are important indicators of the potential long-term impact of social change on Chinese traditions regarding the family," said Dr. Andrew J. Fuligni, the paper's co-author and senior research scientist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute's Center for Culture and Health.
"As China moves to a market economy, the predictions of some observers that the current generation of adolescents would abandon traditional values of family obligation seem unfounded," Fuligni said. "However, the tendency for urban males to have a lower sense of obligation suggests that these youths may be the leading edge of a long-term trend away from adherence to such traditions. We will need to conduct additional studies in the coming years in order to determine whether such a trend actually exists and whether it will continue in the future."
Fuligni's co-author is Wenxin Zhang of Shandong Teachers University, People's Republic of China. The research was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation.
At the end of the 20th century, China aggressively began to shift from a socialist system to a capitalist, free-market economy. The opportunity for the attainment of wealth and property through individual initiative in free-market economies has weakened traditions of family duty and obligation in other societies in the past.
In China, the sense of obligation to family traditionally has encompassed a belief in the need to repay parents for their efforts in raising children, a willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the family and a respect for the authority of the family.
"A movement away from these traditions could have enormous implications related to the care of China's aging population in coming decades," said Fuligni, an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. "This is an issue of great concern among many Chinese citizens and policy-makers."
For now, the Chinese government has limited economic reforms to selected urban centers, opening an opportunity for an urban-rural comparison of the impact of economic change on various facets of society.
In the spring of 1999, approximately 700 high school students in a large city and a rural area in China completed questionnaires that assessed their sense of obligation to support, assist and respect the family.
The results suggest that societal changes fueled by economic changes are weakening the sense of family obligation in urban boys, compared with that of rural adolescents and girls. Urban males were less likely to cite the importance of spending time with parents and helping around the house. They also were less likely to say that as adults they should support their parents economically, or to take parental wishes into account when making life decisions.
In addition, a stronger sense of family obligation among the adolescents surveyed correlated with more positive family relationships and a higher level of academic motivation.
The UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.
The institute's Center for Health and Culture is an interdisciplinary research center composed of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and other biobehavioral social scientists whose research focuses on the impact of social and cultural factors on mental health, human development, and mental retardation and developmental disabilities.
· UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute: www.npi.ucla.edu
· David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA: www.medsch.ucla.edu/
· UCLA Center for Culture and Health: www.npi.ucla.edu/center/culture/index.html
· William T. Grant Foundation: www.wtgrantfoundation.org/