'Little emperors' harden up on reality TV shows

Spoiled children taken out of their comfort zones prove to be surprisingly independent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 5:15am

In a nation with a one-child population planning policy, it's understandable for parents to fret constantly over whether they are cosseting their offspring.

Are the children truly as fragile as sometimes made out to be?

The concern has been brought into focus with the popularity of two hit reality TV series, Hunan TV's Dad! Where Are We Going? and Zhejiang TV's First Time In Life. In both, children as young as three are put under intense scrutiny.

In the First Time show, which ended last month, children chosen from ordinary families were given small tasks to complete by themselves; the ongoing Dad! show centres on five celebrity fathers and their children who are forced to rough it in rural areas, far outside their comfort zone.

Regardless of their family background, the children's reactions to new environments have struck a chord with the public.

In one episode of Dad!, the five-year-old daughter of former Olympic diving champion Tian Liang cries and hides behind her father when they arrive at a rural village. In an episode of the other series, a young girl in Tianjin breaks down into a tearful fit after being asked by her father to venture out alone to buy eggs and a pancake, then walk to her grandma's house.

Such displays of anxiety are common in children the world over, but come under a different scrutiny on the mainland. In the eyes of some observers, these "little princes" or "little emperors" show no sense of independence, and part of the reason is put down to parents who are overly sheltering.

The Huashang Morning Post in September carried a report about a father in Yingkou , Liaoning province, who spent more than 10 million yuan (HK$12.6 million) to buy the kindergarten where his daughter was studying because, he said, "she is as important as my life".

But television viewers and parents were heartened when, later in the First Time episode, they saw the sobbing Tianjin girl finally wipe away her tears as she arrived at her grandmother's home holding the pancake.

In the case of Tian's daughter, she eventually began to take care of her younger companions and showed initiative to seek help from people she didn't know.

The father of the Tianjin girl said he was "delightfully stunned". "She used to have to be accompanied by her mother or grandmother just to go down the stairs. Now she has the courage to do it all by herself."

Su Qi, the director of First Time, said most children who auditioned seemed spoiled, but the ones they did choose surprised them as filming progressed. "With our show most children were able to try harder to finish the tasks with courage, even when their parents were not around," Qi said.

The shows have led some parents to change how they raise their children. Shanghai mother Liang Jing said she would try to "give some training" to her shy three-year-old son, asking him to tidy up his toys, something that she used to do.

"He deserves a chance to be independent," she said, but added she had to balance that with ensuring he remained in a safe environment.

Lin Yi, a parenting expert in Beijing, said many children she had met were accustomed to having everything done for them.

"They are surrounded by parents, grandparents and nannies. But, giving them a chance to do things for themselves helps to tremendously raise their sense of achievement, which carries benefits throughout their lives."