COMMENTARY 973.1: The Power of Words

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Really? Insults, teasing, gossip, and verbal abuse can inflict deeper and more enduring pain than guns and knives.

Ask anyone who as a kid was fat, skinny, short, tall, flat-chested, big-busted, acne-faced, uncoordinated, slow-witted, or exceptionally smart. In schoolrooms and playgrounds across the country, weight, height, looks, and intelligence are the subject of more taunting and ridicule than race or religion.

And it doesn’t get better. Unkind words, tasteless jokes, criticism, and ridicule don’t lose their sting when we become adults.

There’s nothing new about this. But if we trivialize how damaging words can be, especially to youngsters, the ethical significance of verbal assaults can be lost. When we say words can’t hurt anyone, we negate the feelings of those who are genuinely hurt.

Instead of minimizing the importance of words, we should encourage parents and teachers to demand a higher level of respect and greater sensitivity precisely because words can be so powerful.

Yes, we should try to fortify our children’s sense of self-worth so they can bear insults and sarcasm better. And we should urge them not to take what others say too seriously. But it’s just as important to teach them that words have the power of grenades and must be used carefully.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 10

  1. There is a style of communication based on Mashall Rosenberg’s work of “Non violent communication”-
    He provides a sound reflection on what people are trying to really say when they use sticks and stones in their verbal exhortations against others.
    Sad as this may sound, I am married to a physician, and he is one of the most violent communicators I have ever met. I do my best to use the techniques of Dr. Rosenberg to model compassionate and effective communication for our children.

    1. CG— I also am married to a physician who is extremely powerful and all too often ill tempered in HER communication to me and our son. Walking and moving my body tangently away or directly away while diffusing with “yes dears” has been my frequent poor response. I also am foolishly guilty of responding in kind; which rarely is productive. A “deep breathing” modeling response may be my most effective quite honestly !?!? :):)

      I look forward to reading Dr. Rosenburg’s council; yet Jesus’ teachings amongst others already provides LOTS of wisdom. The “relationship and friendship” team building perspective I also have great hope for; while God’s grace and His time will aid our perserverance. Thanks so very much for your contribution to Michael’s blog. Awesome community of lots of wonderful, loving folks. :):):)

  2. Indeed, words ARE damaging. I believe that they are particularly damaging when a parent uses them to abuse his/her child AND I believe that they are every bit as damaging as physical abuse. Our 13 year old granddaughter is the victim of her father’s verbal abuse and has been since she was tiny. Her mother lives with us as does she, but she sees her father every other weekend and every Wednesday. Her father has done and continues to do many inappropriate things, but contacting Child Protective Services seems to no good. My daughter was told that she had to go through the court system, but attorneys are expensive.

    Last night, when my granddaughter came home from her dad’s, she came to me and put her arms around me and cried and cried and cried. She told me that her dad NEVER stops talking at her and does not listen to what she tries to say. She was so embarrassed to tell me what he’d said to her last night that she had to write it down. He had called her a (foul word) California loser. He calls her (and many other people) losers all the time. He does have a personality disorder and the psychologists whom my daughter has employed over the years to help her daughter deal with her father have had difficulty dealing with him as well. Still, wouldn’t you think that there would be some protection for our granddaughter and other children that was affordable? These children are not property to be used in whatever way one wishes…helpless victims in their own home. They are precious gifts of God to be loved and nurtured and guided into adulthood.

  3. Dear Kathy,

    I believe there would be a system in place that provides protective care for children in families that cannot afford to pay for the services of attorneys. It would help to find out from Social Services.

    Its comforting to know that there is a psychologist working with your granddaughter. You alluded to the fact that children are precious gifts of God to be loved and nurtured…God answers prayers….pray to God concerning your Granddaughter and her father and see what He will do.

    Quite often, I have to make conscious efforts to control my tongue, as I have tendencies to throw verbal sticks and stones. Unfortunately, as is normally the case, it is those closest to me that get hurt as a result. Now, I try not to react immediately, but pause for a while to reflect. I focus on the positive attributes of people, their potentials, as well as what they really mean to me. Then, I address those I would otherwise speak to harshly, in a nice manner, by using ‘my dear’ or ‘Darling’…..When I do that, it becomes difficult to follow up with unpleasant words. It works well for me, as I have seen many improvements in my relationships.
    Thank you for sharing.

  4. Michael,
    Words can hurt. So much so that they can lead to blows, fights and serious assaults. W hile facilitating an anger management class for teens we discussed perceptions of words. We collectively came up with this response. When someone says something hurtful to you, pause, take a deep breath, and in a non-confrontational way say,

  5. The MSM would agree with you, as long as the target was not a GOP leader. When was the last time you heard anyone criticize someone for telling fat jokes about NJ Gov. Chris Christie? Like most other PC “rules”, there are two sets based on ideology. Hypocrisy is a mainstay of the left. Like their meaning of Diversity is that anyone of any race, creed or color can agree with them. And anyone that disagrees with them, regardless of RCC, will be attacked with the most vile, demeaning, hate speech anyone has ever heard. Just imagine how the MSM would attack a GOP presidential candidate that was half black, gay, an Iraq war double amputee, with a native American surname, that was a Redskins fan.

    1. Y, if you ever come back to read this, I hope you have doubled your observational skills in the past year to see that kind of hypocrisy goes both ways. No one is untainted in that crowd.

  6. Before I retired I had the privilege of working with kids for nearly 40 years in many capacities: school bus driver, pre-school/school age childcare teacher, PE teacher, and finally character/anti-bullying enrichment teacher.
    I always remembered too well the sting of words shot at me as a kid, both in teasing and in outright bullying and how much those words really hurt. When I protested, I was told to ‘get over it’ or ‘you’re too sensitive!’
    A wise mentor taught us a new version of Sticks & Stones which I shared in all of my classes and I’d like to share it with you.
    “Sticks and Stones may break some bones, but words can break a heart!”

  7. This topic (Words Can Hurt) hits very close to home. Not that I had a bad upbringing, quite the opposite. Damaging words from peers is one thing, but from those who raise us is incomprehensible to me. I never heard (or at least remember) a destructive word from either of my parents, and am extremely proud to call my parents were model “teachers”. I understand this more and more now that I am a grandparent, as I learn of others’ upbringing of my generation and my children’s generation. The shame is that my own generation is at fault, perhaps more than any before it, for perpetuating such degradation of the human spirit and ideals. My wife tells me stories of her past and some of the destructive things she was told and had to endure in her household growing up. I can only imagine how those things would have affected me and what kind of a man I would be today if were raised in her shoes. I know I would be much less patient, much less tolerant, much less loving. What a tragedy it is that so much abuse takes place in the privacy of our own homes.

    My wife and I have taken to watching syndications of the famous TV show of the 70’s, The Waltons. We are hooked! I know it’s unrealistic to hope for a society with virtually every individual that is admirable, dignified and respectful of others, but I think the show does a terrific job of portraying the possibilities.

  8. Growing up, I learned firsthand that words do hurt–and a shrieking delivery hurts physically (ears). I am fifty years old and have been thoroughly programmed to believe that I am lazy, uncompassionate, rude and “disagreeable,” whatever that means. Every so-often, I still shed a few tears thinking about how my mother (an overworked single parent) really never meant any of those things. Happily, she’s a much more positive and self-reflective person today. And I have dedicated my life to proving all those words wrong. So there!

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