A generation of children has now grown up under China's one-child policy, which was enacted in 1979 to limit many Chinese couples—particularly urban, ethnic-majority ones—to one child each.

The policy was intended to curb population growth, which it has done. But now, some in China are beginning to wonder whether a generation of only children—sometimes pejoratively called "little emperors"—will be ready to take on the challenge of caring for their aging parents without any siblings to ease the burden, according to Xiaochen Chen, an educational psychology graduate student at the University of California–Los Angeles.

Chen spoke at APA's 2011 Annual Convention about her research on Chinese young adults' attitudes toward elder care, as part of a panel discussion on Chinese adaptations to the one-child policy.

"I was interested in learning about this because this is my generation," said Chen.

Traditionally, she said, Chinese culture has valued filial duty—sons were expected to care for aging parents, and daughters to join their husbands' families and do the same.

Chen wanted to know what the country's younger generation believes now. Do they expect to care for their parents or to put them in nursing homes? Do only children worry more about what will happen when their parents grow old than people with siblings do?

To answer those questions, she analyzed data from a survey of more than 600 young adults, 41 percent of whom were only children. The data were collected in six Chinese cities by Xiaotian Feng, PhD, a professor at Nanjing University. Chen found that 83 percent of the respondents had thought about the issue of elder care, but that only children didn't seem to worry more about it than people with siblings did.

She also found that traditional values still held strong, particularly among men. They were less likely than women to agree that nursing homes are a practical solution for elder care.

When the question moved from the theoretical to the personal, both men and women said they expect to care for their parents. More than half of respondents said that they would definitely not put their own parents in nursing homes, and 19 percent said they would probably not do so.

"People still would feel guilty about sending their own parents to a nursing home," Chen said.

More research is needed to see what this generation will really do as their parents age and the theoretical questions become real, she said. "Attitude is not always an accurate predictor of behavior."

—L. Winerman