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An old “truism” that’s truly false

By guest blogger Eli Zaret

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

That’s the old playground retort, and you have to wonder how a mantra so widely endorsed for so many generations could be so completely wrong. The truth is the exact opposite: Physical pain eventually subsides, but a well-delivered insult or series of insults can emotionally scar someone for a lifetime, and in some cases, cause them to end their life.

Author Doe Zantamata puts it this way:

Instead of telling kids that only sticks and stones can break their bones but words can never hurt them, we should tell the truth.

Words CAN hurt them.

Words are very powerful, and can lift or crush others, especially young people who don’t have a solid sense of self yet.

Teach them empathy, and to use words only in a loving way. Words can help people to achieve things they weren’t sure they could, and words can bring people down to depression or suicide if their self-worth was already low.

Teach them that true power is in helping to build good, strong spirits, not to tear them down.

I’ve spent a career analyzing communication and its ability to affect people. The ability to communicate well is a gift. It can be used to lift people up or con them and cause pain. It’s always an individual choice.

Many successful people cite a mentor or coach who knew how to motivate them with the right amount of loving or challenging words. Martin Luther King moved millions
and changed America forever by repeating with great emotion, “I have a dream.”  The context and execution were powerful enough to fuel the civil rights movement.  The message for us is that the words we say to our children and the way we say them can guide their lives for the better or for the worse.

Sadly, the quality of communication is rapidly declining in America. Our kids even seem to have forsaken the spoken word for texting, where bad grammar and the lack of body language and voice inflection can easily create incomplete or confusing messages.  Language, which separates humans from all other life forms, has become increasingly negative and polarized. It’s also been cheapened by technology, and its impersonality can have horrifying results.

The burden on us is to help elevate our kids above the din by understanding the responsibility we bear in using words in life-affirming rather than life-denying ways.  Kids aren’t allowed to hurl a stone at a classmate, but no one is stopping them from lobbing “nerd” or “stupid” or “ugly” and effectively doing something worse.

Bullying is rampant in America. It happens in broad daylight every day at all age levels. We can’t afford to also let it happen at home.

Kids can tell if “I love you” is sincere or delivered as an obligation. How you say, “Your room is a mess, clean it up,” can carry different meanings. Is it a loving reminder because you want them to be more comfortable, or is it said in a way to make them feel inadequate? Cynicism and judgment in your voice can have devastating effects on someone who’s looking to you to define their emerging selves.

To affirm his agenda, radio host and master communicator Rush Limbaugh referred to Sandra Fluke as a “Slut” during the Planned Parenthood dustup this year, and by delivering the slur rather than a respectful term for someone seeking birth control, he effectively created the political firestorm he sought.  I’m not singling out a particular viewpoint. We hear it on all mediums and formats, where people choose the right damning terms to promote their agenda.

Helping our kids rise above callous playground insults or cyber-bullying is a role we need to take seriously. We have to monitor every aspect of their interactions and help them parse the life-affirming modes of communication from its dark opposite.

Words have power, and it matters that we teach children how to properly and effectively utilize them to make their world a better place.