Chances are you heard this nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
It’s not so much a matter of truth as it is an admonition to children. When a bully comes along and calls you ugly names, you respond assertively by repeating the verse in his presence. It’s a precursor to the non-violent response we praise Martin Luther King and Ghandi for. The hope is that your accuser will see the indisputable logic of your rhyme and back off.
The truth is that we are emotional beings and words can hurt. Sometimes you might prefer an outright physical beating to some of the cruel things people can say. And sometimes the injury someone’s harsh words can bring can last a lifetime.
Come back in time with me.
It was the first day at a new school for me. All the kids seated around me were strangers talking to each other and not to me. All my classes were on the same hall that stretched for about a quarter mile. The smell of textbooks and sweaty people permeated the air.
Then it was time for Bible class.
Mr. Ford was a big man whose hair resembled the wigs the band Devo used to wear. He had on shirtsleeves and a dark tie with white stripes that angled their way into the triangular knot at his neck like the bars on a barber pole. His eyebrows were heavy and pointed down toward his nose like the point of an arrow.
He asked us to turn in our Bibles to 1 Chronicles. I said to myself as I flipped through the pages with the intensity of a raging fire in dry grass, “Let’s see if this Bible has Chronicles in it.”
Then I heard Mr. Ford’s booming voice.
“YOU BE QUIET!”
Imagine how you might feel.
I felt like I’d been assaulted.
There I was. Embarrassment filled my cheeks with blood. The eyes of the other kids in the room were fixed on me as silence filled the air. My jaws locked. I couldn’t speak. My skin was covered with the perspiration of fear, yet I felt the chill of being in the spotlight when I’d rather be alone in a closet with the door locked.
Those three words shaped my life throughout high school and into college.
As teachers and parents, we should remember that what we say can linger in a child’s mind for the rest of his life. Adults are authority figures. Our words have power. Even a sentience uttered in the moment can leave an indelible scar on a child.
If we look at the nursery rhyme again, we would have to conclude that words can hurt as much as broken bones. But at least our emotions can’t interfere with our bones the way they can ruin us in response to hurtful words.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can sting like vipers.
Think about that the next time a child makes you angry.