by Xinhua writers Zhou Yan, Pan Qiang and Qin Xingxing
NANNING, May 29 (Xinhua) -- Two days till Children's Day, and Pan Wenfeng still doesn't know what to buy for his six-year-old daughter.
Snacks, toys and dresses are nothing special. A trip to the zoo or cinema is a weekly occurrence. The only thing she truly enjoys is playing with her friends from kindergarten. "They can play until bedtime and it feels cruel to separate them," said Pan.
Pan knows all too well that in most urban families children's material needs are well met. What kids really want is a companion. He and his wife Li Xuehong have vacillated for years over a second child.
Both are single children themselves, born in the late 1970s, just as family planning policy limited most urban families to one child.
Pan, 35, claims he had no childhood: "My parents were government employees and were often posted to different places. We moved from one city to another. I had barely made new friends when we moved again."
He spent his early years in solitude. "I read to myself and watched TV alone, and I became quite independent and self-centered."
After he was married, he faced a crisis of egoism. Li is an only child too, and the center of her family. "She was so spoiled that she came to the table only after her parents had set the table and served her helping of food," said Pan.
Li's parents insisted the couple live with them, saying they were still young and ignorant. The elderly couple also took care of their daughter, while Pan and Li often quarreled over such trifles as who was to clean the floor or wash the dishes. They played stone, paper, scissors to decide who would keep an eye on the child and who would play computer games.
Pan works for a busy animal feed supplier in Nanning, capital of south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He took it for granted that his wife, a government employee, was less stressed at work and would take on a bigger share of the housework. When he got home at the end of the day, Li would stare at him and say: "Don't give me that 'I'm too tired from work to do the cooking' look."
Pan and Li know their daughter needs a sibling. "I don't want my daughter to grow up alone like me, under the watchful eyes and high expectations of my parents, with no companion and no fun. I never even even played house, you know," said Li.
When she was a teenager, Li dreamed of the countryside. "I wanted to be a rural school teacher, but my parents insisted I attend university, major in accounting and get a stable job near my home."
Li feels her dreams were strangled by her parents. "With a brother or sister, things would have been different."
They dread the burden that a second child would bring. Their parents are getting too old to babysit, and with a combined monthly income of only 8,000 yuan, raising two children may be beyond their means.
"Living expenses are not too high in Nanning, but as our daughter comes of school age, there will be English and dance classes, which cost about one fifth of our income," said Li.
Staggering home prices, educations costs and medical expenses are major obstacles for couples who wish to have a second child, said Zhang Chewei of the Institute of Population and Labor Economics. "Besides the financial pressure, couples may be stressed out physically and mentally, with four ageing parents and two children to care for," said Zhang.
"Single children lack the fun of playing, working and even fighting with siblings, which used to be crucial parts of childhood," Zhang said. "Such experiences help shape children's personality and through conflict and solutions, children learn to compromise and get along with others."
Many single children are spoiled at home and lack group activities, said Prof. Zhou Xiaozheng with Renmin University: "They are more prone to psychological problems than their peers with siblings."
The China Association for Mental Health estimates that 15 percent of children under 14 have psychological problems: at least 20 million children.
Before he went to study in the United States in 2012, Chen Zhengwei, 18, attended six different schools in Guangzhou, Nanning and Beijing. Each time his parents changed jobs, he would have to change school, sometimes even before he got to know his classmates.
"My parents were busy all the time. I had no siblings at home and no friends at school. The solitude was overwhelming," said Chen. "I became addicted to computer games at seven, and only overcame the addiction after I left China at 16."
His parents took him to counseling, but he refused to follow the doctor's advice. "I felt it was not my fault, so I didn't want to make any changes."
Chen resents his parents for his bitter childhood. "They could have given birth to another child, or given me a stable environment with friends."
But for Chen, born in 1996, a sibling was simply out of the question even if his parents had the desire. The couple are urbanites and they both have siblings themselves. Second children in those days were only allowed to rural residents or parents whose first child was disabled. The policy loosened over the years to marriages where both were single children themselves and to wealthy people willing to pay at least 200,000 yuan. Since the end of last year, if only one parent is a single child, couples are allowed a second.
Over the decades, the one child policy has cut China's population by about 400 million, reckons Beijing University professor Guo Zhigang. Average annual births dropped from 20 million in the 1980s to 15 million in 2000, and the proportion of minors in the total population shrank from 33.6 percent in 1982 to 16.6 percent in 2010. About 218 million people in China have no siblings, according to demographer Yi Fuxian, who made the calculations in 2012 based on national census data.
Yi, -- author of "Big Country in an Empty Nest", a book that blamed the one child policy for a shrinking working population and rapidly aging society -- called for an end to birth limits at least a decade before last years' policy change.