Featured on the Hong Kong Economic Journal (June 8, 2017)
"I recently saw a situation where a little boy fell down on the ground and an adult came hurriedly over to see if he was okay. It was just a slip so the boy was fine but the adult immediately said “the floor is so naughty. Hit the floor.” So what the boy was being shown to do was to hit the floor as punishment for ‘making him fall’. Now I’m not sure what made the boy fall – maybe he just lost his balance, or there was a wet patch on the floor or he tripped on something but whatever it was, I’m sure the floor didn’t ‘make him fall’.
I never realized what an issue I have with this practice and it seems that it is rather common in Chinese cultures. I’m not sure how this kind of teaching came about but perhaps it was to make the child feel better, to let the child know it wasn’t his fault or just to express the frustration of an accident. Now of course the floor (or whatever object it may be) has no feelings so my problem with this methodology certainly isn’t because we hurt the recipient’s feelings but I think it’s the wrong message to send our children.
First of all, it’s just not true. I believe in telling children the truth because that’s what builds trust between us and helps them learn to tell the truth in the future too. So call me a killjoy but I won’t teach my child about Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy. By telling him that ‘the floor is naughty for making you fall’ is simply not the truth. And in this case, I think a kid can handle the level of truth you need to share.
Secondly, it’s pushing blame on something that doesn’t deserve it. The floor obviously didn’t do anything to cause the slip so by ‘punishing’ the floor, it is giving the message to the child that we can blame something even if it didn’t do anything. It may seem fine when it’s the floor but what if he grows up and learns to blame people who didn’t have a part to play? What if bad things happen because it’s always someone else’s fault?
Thirdly, this reaction of blaming something causes a child to immediately think of outward reasons for a mishap instead of self-reflecting on what she could have done better or differently. Imagine a child failing a test and the immediate response being “it’s not my fault – the test was too difficult’. This isn’t constructive to a child’s development as it doesn’t cause her to think inwardly as to how she could have done better or to improve. What if she always looks outwardly for reasons to blame instead of self-reflecting on what she may have done to cause something? It’s not a constructive way to think.
Now I’m certainly not proposing we then take it to the other extreme to blame, shame and reprimand the child. All too often I have heard adults telling their children how stupid/slow/clumsy they are for making mistakes or just a mishap like slipping on the floor. I think there are much better ways to handle such an incident. To me, the most important thing to have is empathy – the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of another. So when an accident happens, in addition to checking for physical safety, I think we need to respond with empathy.
First, to show care by asking what happened and if the child is okay. Crouch down or kneel down on the floor to get on the same eye level as the child as ask if he is okay. Ask where it hurts and what happened. Understand the situation.
Second, reflect you understand his feelings. Start by saying “I know that must really hurt right now” or “I know you feel embarrassed about falling in front of so many people” so that the child knows that you know how he feels.
Thirdly, ask what could be done differently next time. Get him to think through different options of what could be done differently. Assume responsibility for things that can be controlled. For things that can’t be, then leave it at that.
We want to see a generation of responsible and trustworthy children raised up and this is a small way to start. "