…but words will never hurt me? Well that must be the biggest lie I’ve ever heard. Whoever first said that was surely never on the receiving end of painful words, harsh verbal onslaughts or cruel jibes. Whoever said that probably never went through putting on a brave face in public before making a hasty withdrawal and sobbing in private moments later.
As a teenager, I was the oldest in my very small private school for the final two years I was there. This meant that I had boobs first, wore make-up first and was larger than the rest of my year. And by the rest of my year, I mean the one other girl in high school with me. Now, I can’t fault the education, but good heavens the boys could be a nightmare. I was a swimmer in my school team for a season, and I remember getting ready to dive in to the pool one day when one of the boys shouted something about ‘watching out’ because there’d be no water left once I had.
I dove, I swam my length and I cried. And I walked back round to the changing rooms and blamed my red eyes on chlorine. What followed was a number of years of diet pills, laxatives and self-induced vomiting. I can still make myself throw up simply by hovering over the toilet. And I still have massive issues with food, healthy eating and weight management.
There was another time, when I was younger that we had an overhanging mulberry tree in our street and some of the girls formed a ‘gang’, with this overhanging tree as our gang-house. Once we were all in, we realised there wasn’t really room for all four of us, so since I was the most recent addition to the neighbourhood, they said I couldn’t be in the gang anymore.
I remember saying something like, ‘oh, sure, that’s okay’ and leaving and crying all the way home. One of the girls came to me later and said they were sorry and they could see on my face that I was really upset (I’ve never been good at hiding my emotions), and that they wanted me back in the gang. But I’ve often wondered if that wasn’t why I sometimes feel that no one wants to be friends with me, that they’re humouring me â€“ even when I know that’s not true.
Two silly incidents, both involving children, but so hurtful to me at the time, and so memorable and in their own ways, ultimately, scarring.
Sticks and stone might break bones, but bones can be reset. Words, however, can damage for life.
And that includes the things we say to our children. The little pet names, and the hurtful, spiteful things we might say out of frustration, have an impact.
If we call our children “brats”, expect them to be bratty.
If we call our children “terrors”, expect to be terrorised by them.
If we call our children “stupid” or “idiot”, expect them to be stupid or idiotic â€“ or at least to act that way.
If we call our children these things, and other similar names, it is an act of bullying and verbal abuse, whether you intend it or not. I mean, would you enjoy being called “fatso”, “brat” or “idiot”? How would you feel about the person calling you those names?
Psychologist Sarah Chana writes about name calling:
This effect is much much more powerful in childhood when a youngster’s sense of self is not yet fully formed.Â At this point, being called names can leave the child truly believing that he or she is damaged, worthless, useless, bad and defective, as well as unlovable. Once a child entertains such notions about him/herself, the child tends to act in ways that are consistent with that poor self-image.Â So a child who is regularly called “stupid” for example, comes to believe that he can’t do things like other people and then he stops trying to succeed. The label can be crippling.
The blog Bullies Be Gone has the following to say about parents who bully their children:
Whether that’s done consciously and intentionally, or the parents are righteous and oblivious to the effects they’re having, or they think that they’re preparing their children to be humble and moral or to face a hostile world, the pain is real and the effects can last for decades.
I’d like to challenge you today to pay attention to the words you use with your children. I’d like to challenge you to be conscious when you speak to them â€“ conscious of the message your words send, and conscious of the meaning your playful jibes might be sending to impressionable little ones, or older ones for that matter.
The words we use can shape a person’s future, whether we intend it or not. Sticks and stones, my friend, can be ducked, thrown back or evaded. But words leave their imprint on the soul forever.
Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones…
I won’t even let my husband call our 2yo “Drama Queen.” I really don’t think he “gets it,” but he is willing to bend to my decision on this one.
My father tells me that my aunt (on my mother’s side) was called stupid all her life, and so she is.
I just can’t fathom the argument of “toughening up” the kids in preparation for the “real world.” How about we try to soften up that outside world?! And if a child can’t feel safe, loved, and respected at home with their family, then where??
Great post! Thanks for sharing it with me. I have it bookmarked for sharing later.
@Momma Jorje, Thank you Jorje. I agree entirely. There’s enough ‘bad’ in the world. At least in the home we can build a decent foundation.
This is a simply AMAZING article, you are a really great writer! Thanks for sharing this with us! 🙂
My mum often used that phrase with me when I was being picked on and I realised that it was true (in my case anyway), sometimes it would be me who was the bossy sharp tounged little brat and other times I was on the receiving end. It’s hard though to try to use only positive phrases as you’ve all been discussing above… my brain and mouth rarely work in conjunction!
This is a good reminder for me that even words that aren’t necessarily negative labels can still do harm. I often feel like I need to go out of my way to tell people that my oldest child is painfully shy. She *is* very shy but in reading this I think that my saying so is only perpetuating it, and it is an excuse she uses all the time to get out of social activities. Hm. Great post. Shared it on twitter.
@Melodie, Thanks Melodie, and thanks for the share.
I must admit I also struggle sometimes and have to catch myself saying things, or I’ll say them then wonder about whether they could be misunderstood if she could understand, and have to change what I’ve said i.e. Kyra, stop being naughty – okay, not naughty, rather, come here and play with this instead. Anyone listening to me will think I’m rather strange, but I am learning and trying to retrain my own way of speaking – starting as I mean to go on. 😉
I hope you find ways around it too!
This is a really interesting post.
I was reading the Baby Whisperer recently and was interested in her suggestion that even when children are newborns, they should be spoken to with the same respect as any adult would appreciate. This included always referring to them by name as never as “the baby”, because “the baby” is reductive in some way. It may sound extreme, but as someone who loves and is enthralled by language, I think it’s probably true. And your argument even more so. How we label other people is so important, not only to our own opinion of them but in shaping them too.
As for “words can never hurt me”, I think it’s rubbish. If the pen is mightier than the sword, the tongue can be nuclear.
What a great blog post. I take things literally so the saying ‘sticks and stones may brake my bones but names will never hurt me’ was actually of great comfort for me, as I was called names all through school and just ignored them and put them down to just words – but I have always been rather odd.
I love your advice to parents to remind them to watch how they word things. I think nicknames are great, but they should be positive. We have just named Geeky Son – Wiggles and often call him a wriggly or cheeky monkey but only ever in a smiley voice.
I do think that it is important to teach your child teasing – i.e. how to tease kindly, but also how to ignore nasty teasing. Children need to be taught how not to inadvertantly bully other child but also how to ignore bullies and deal with the unfairness of life.
@Geeky Mummy, Oh, I don’t think something like ‘cheeky monkey’ is particularly hurtful, specially since it’s really the kind of thing you’ll probably only say in a playful situation. (I think!)
I’m interested in what you say about it really only being words to you – I think you must be a lot stronger than I am!
I do agree that it’s important to teach children about teasing and even bullying, but I think it’s really important not to teach this specific thing by example.
I’m sure this was a very difficult post to write – I too was bullied it was truly horrendous for years
@Whimsical Wife, I am so sorry to hear that. I can’t honestly say I was ‘bullied’ as such – more ignored and made to feel rather insignificant, at least until high school. But maybe that was silent bullying of it’s own. I hope you’ve been able to work through your trauma.
Thanks so much for commenting.
This is a great post and a lesson to be learned. I was bullied a bit at school and still have the memories. I agree name calling can damage children for life. I have become very aware of what I say to my 2 year old. Yes I have called her a brat and the other day she said to me “mummy you are so annoying” – when she said that I realised she was repeating something I said to her, when she was being a monster. I felt awful. It has made me think about what I say to her.
@21st Century Mummy,I guess we all make the mistake sometimes, because for the most part it’s something we grew up with and it’s something we see/hear all around us, so it’s hard not to just repeat the behaviour. I’m not good at it yet, and the fact is I get it wrong too, sometimes, but so long as we keep trying, right?
will words like tired,miserable,inquisitive,……. awesome,wow, amazing,and wonderful be out of bounds. For certain ‘little devil’ horror and brat goes with out saying
@nana colleen, No, I don’t think having words as out of bounds is any good, but I think the WAY they are said is the important thing. “Well done, you’re a freakin GENIUS” said the wrong way can be hurtful, especially if, say, K spilled water out her cup and messed the floor. It would (IN MY VIEW) disaude her from trying with the cup again. I think something like, ”my but you’re an inquisitive little girl’ doesn’t have to be a bad thing, or said badly, or received badly.
I guess what I’m saying is that there is a difference between BEING something and FEELING something – you ARE a miserable little girl, is different to are you just FEELING miserable?
But yeah, words like Brat/tramp/imp/nightmare are totally ‘out of bounds’.
And sadly, that’s something I’m still learning too.
Babes it is SO true what you say. I was bullied from the age of 7 until my mum pulled me out of secondary school at 14. In that time I developed severe depression and anxiety, was prescribed beta blockers and anti sickness tablets and do you know the one thing I heard every single day? “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words cannot hurt you” and do you know what, it really is the biggest lie in the whole flaming world and if I ever say that to my son then god forbid please shoot me. Words are far more harmful than physical attacks in my belief having only ever experienced mental bullying. Well done for speaking up hun. An amazing post and definitely makes me think about the way we speak!
@Hayley, Thanks for the comment Hayley. Yes, I think there’s a lot to be said for emotional and mental abuse. It carries on much longer than scars last for and the problem is that it comes back in flashes at random times in your life if you aren’t able to deal with it. I hope you managed to get any help you needed 🙂
Great post. Children can be so mean to each other, can’t they? I had similar experiences.
We have always tried to make a point of not using words like ‘rascal’ and ‘mischief’ and so on and also try to always label the action (‘unacceptable behaviour’, ‘that wasn’t a nice thing to do’, etc.), though in the heat of the moment we can forget, especially when Rosemary is going through a stubborn phase. These days I have to keep reminding Rosemary that Eleanor’s naughty when she throws food on the floor, tries to open the bin cupboard for the 50th time, etc. etc. I explain that she’s just a baby and doesn’t understand yet, that she’s just exploring and needs to be distracted, rather than told off. But it’s not the easiest thing for a 4-year-old to appreciate, so I fear Eleanor is going to be subjected to name-calling a lot more than Rosemary was.
Something that really annoys me is labelling babies as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My mum looks after Eleanor a lot (as she did Rosemary) and she’s only just at the point again where I don’t have to remind her not to say ‘She was really good’ – say ‘She was really happy’ ‘She didn’t get at all upset’ and so on. Not that she was ‘good’, because she doesn’t have the ability or understanding to be good or bad yet. Just one of my bugbears.
@Tasha (Coding Mamma), Tasha, this is something I’ve become really conscious about with Kyra too ever since she walked around the house a few weeks ago going ‘no, no, no, no’ – I think it was just a new sound for her, but it still really struck me. There’s a wonderful blog called Code Name: Mama who do a lot on gentle discipline and conscientiously raising our children. I recommend a read there if you need encouragement. (link in my blog roll too)
As I go and stay with my family for a few months now I think your bugbear is one I’m going to be dealing with soon – it’s not that they are bad people, or were bad parents, it’s just the way ‘it’s done’ and I’m going to have to put a very quick stop to things like that. I am pretty sure you’re doing your best though – I think being aware of it its the first step!
I really feel for you – I expereinced a huge amount of bullying at school, all int eh form of name calling.
With 2 boys of my own I am desperatly trying to always use positive words, I particulary hate hearing anyone calling thier child stupid or an idiot.
I can still remember the names that I was called as child – for me words have and do hurt me.
Well done on writing about what was clearly a painful part of your life
I had a post on this previously, it was an incident of name calling that made me kick start my blog again.
@Zoe, Thank you Zoe. I can’t really claim that I was ‘bullied’ at school, more like ignored as the perpetual new girl, up till highschool anyway. I am so sorry that is something you had to go through. I am off to read your post…