Did you grow up in the era of “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”
Childhood memories can be brutal – especially if you were ever accosted by a bully. It didn’t happen more than a couple of times to me, but I remember yelling these words hoping the bullies chasing me would somehow get tripped up by some magical force that the words conjured up! They never threw punches, but the unkind words they flung could be far more damaging.
“Ugly duckling!” “You look like a boy!” “Pigeon toes!” Words thrown in haste that decades later, for most of us, can still sting.
Names and words can be powerful weapons that can inflict pain, rejection or verbal “spanking” of others. I believe that words can turn into W.O.M. – weapons of mass destruction, and cause widespread damage to whole societies. (Hitler used words to effectively control a nation and alienate the world.)
I recall the story of a bully whose father caught him taunting the neighborhood kids. As punishment, he made his son put nails into a fence for each name he had yelled. The fence was covered with nails by the time he was finished, and the father talked to his son about the damage he was causing. The son recognized the bad behavior and promised to stop bullying. When a day that passed without name calling, the father allowed the son to remove some nails from the fence, until it was finally clear of nails. The lingering message came on the last day when the father showed the son the holes that remained in the fence. The son then realized the lingering damage of careless words.
Today, many parents refrain from corporal punishment (physical spanking), but fail to recognize the harm they inflict by the verbal spankings they unleash with their words. (It is oft quoted that children hear the word “no” around 67,000 times by the time they reach the age of two, and the word “yes” far less!)
What is worse – physical or verbal abuse?
If you believe the opening line of this post (sticks and stones…), you may not agree that words and tone can cause damage. But I would bet that unless you have the most confidence and the most wonderful parents in the world, you probably still cringe when you recall harsh words of grownups from your past. Why do we convict those who use physical abuse as their weapon and not those who use words to the same effect?
This week, a new documentary called “Bully” opened in select theatres across the country. The filmmakers chronicled the life of a teenage victim, in the hopes of raising awareness and curtailing bullying in schools. I agree that it is time we take action to stop school yard bullies so that all children can concentrate on learning (a good strategic move for our nation!)
Maybe the next step after that will be to face the less obvious, but sometimes worse, cyber bullying and verbal abuse. But, first, we as adults, need to stop and recognize the power of words to cause harm. Guilt, shame, rejection, and embarrassment… these are but a few of the emotions we can stir up with pointy words. We would never poke someone’s eye out with a stick, but we don’t think twice about stabbing them with words.
(Sidenote: sometimes parents even use these tactics on their grown children to coerce or manipulate them into submission. I’ve seen plenty of examples of this from friends whose parents don’t realize they are no longer children.)
Perhaps the first step towards healing our societies is to reword the childhood adage… to maybe “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will ever hurt me.”
Just food for thought…