Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (May 31, 2018)
Just this past week, I was with my son at a playroom and as he was playing with a barbeque play set and making ‘food’, some vocal girls got my attention. I looked over and three kindergarten-aged girls were playing together by the kitchen play set where they were cooking food together. Amongst the three girls was a little boy, probably about 2 years old, and the girls couldn’t have been more than 5. I noticed that every time the boy touched something that they were playing with, the girls would shout at him loudly ‘no!’. He wasn’t taking things away from them as they were playing with them; he was just picking objects up near them. But each time he did, he would be shouted at. After which, I noticed him copying them (as toddlers do!) and pointing at nothing in particular and shouting ‘no!’.
I watched this take place for a couple minutes and then out of curiosity more than anything else, I casually asked the girls “how come you’re not letting the boy play with you?”. They gave me an impassioned reply “we’re not letting him play with us because he’s so little! We’re big girls now and we don’t play with little boys!”. I was amazed at the conviction they said it with but I obviously did not agree with them. So I replied “just because he’s younger doesn’t mean you can’t play with him. You can just teach him how to play. You’re big girls so you know how to teach him. And playing together can be fun!” They contemplated for a while and perhaps because they are still at that impressionable age when they will listen to adults relatively easily, they said “oh yes!”
Fast forward to 15 minutes later, these three girls were not playing with 1 but 3 little boys (and with me!). They had set up an ice cream shop and were selling ice cream cones to the little boys and let the boys freely roam around their play area and play with their things. And as I sat back to watch the scene, I couldn’t help by smile in contentment. Within a span of 20 minutes, 3 girls went from being mean to being kind; from being exclusive to inclusive and I hope they kept it up even outside of that playroom.
And it also made me think. That first little boy was learning from these girls to say no and point his finger. And likely he’d do the same with others, perhaps his age or younger in the future. Every action we take creates a ripple effect and the effect can be a positive or a negative one. How do we create positive ripple effects?
Some people have challenged me to say that character isn’t taught and that it’s caught. I am in full agreement that it has to be caught, meaning that we have to be role models and show them what living with character looks like so that they can ‘catch’ it. But I disagree with the comment that these things shouldn’t be taught. There are some schools of thought that say that children need to work things out for themselves and adults shouldn’t interfere in their learning process. But for young children, they are learning all the time – it’s just about whether they are learning the right things or not. And we have the responsibility to teach them what the right things are, why it’s right and how to do it.
That little boy was learning from the older girls how to shout and say no. The girls were learning from each other what was socially acceptable in their small group by excluding the boy. But after being taught that they can do things differently, they did it and the ripple effect went from being negative to positive. How will you create a positive ripple effect today and how will you teach your children to?