Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words shall never harm me! Remember that old saying? We sang it in the schoolyard as we skipped away from meanies, heads held high. It was the definitive answer to every bullying insult.
Sometime around 1990, child-rights activists in the U.S. denounced this once popular adage as a flat-out lie. Of course words can harm people, they insisted. And they were right. They encouraged parents and teachers to rethink the way we speak to and about children. Instead of telling our kids they are “bad” when they disobey, as perhaps our grandparents once did, we now know to pinpoint specific behaviors as choices that do not yield desired results. Words do count. They not only express thought, but they change thought.
But now I think it’s time we bring back Sticks and Stones. These days, grown-up people fall apart when they hear a word they don’t like. Leaders in our society publicly demand apologies nearly every week. Going to court–or worse, to violence–over insults and name-calling is common. As adults, we know that much of this nonsense is showboating for attention or politics or money or whatever, but little eyes are watching. The most vulnerable among us don’t know the difference. We are teaching our children to fear words.
As young children, we old-timers were taught the Sticks and Stones saying as a self-defense mechanism. When it slipped our minds, when we felt most vulnerable, our parents, our teachers, and our friends all reminded us: “Those kids at school called you ugly and stupid? They called you a bad name? So what? Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words shall never harm you.”
And we felt better. We learned not to crumble in humiliation and not to retaliate. Rather, we could let hurtful words roll off of us without consequence. The proverb empowered us, reminding us that insults and name-calling are non-issues. No, it didn’t protect us from out-and-out emotional abuse, but it cushioned us from the barbs of everyday spats and squabbles. We learned that there are levels of wrongdoing and that an insult is not a life-or-death issue. We learned that some people will always say mean things and we can choose to ignore them. We learned to be strong without being tough.
Of course, when lines are crossed, when violence, threating behavior, or discrimination is involved, or when even name-calling becomes inescapable bullying, we must pull in the reins with whatever legal means are necessary to protect the innocent. That’s often not the case, though. Often, someone just doesn’t like what someone else says and so demands that the words must be labeled and censored. Children pick up on adult attitudes. Remember the big picture. In a country where we want to keep the right to say what we think and believe, we need to demonstrate that we are strong enough to allow others that same freedom. Even if others are meanies.
If Sticks and Stones doesn’t work for you, try this one: “I’m rubber and you’re glue. Anything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” It’s a little harsher, but it’s still a classic.
How were you taught to handle insults, name-calling, and differing opinions when you were a child? Have your responses changed now that you are an adult? What do you think about public apologies for ignorant or profane language?
Kathryn A. Frazier is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader, and writer. She lives in Tampa, Florida with her beloved family, Scruffy Dog and Valentino the Ridiculously Tiny Dog. It's hot there. And swampy. With gators. She's really brave.
This is a very thought-provoking article that raises many good issues.
For those of us who are not Euro-American, insults and name-calling are part of the general
pattern of racism manifested in constant verbal microaggression. It is part and parcel of the
American “race card” that was assigned to us at birth. Unfortunately, the psychological and
emotional damage done to children and youth is not easily undone; even well-meaning phrases
such as “don’t let them get under your skin” or “we’re all big enough to take a few insults” is
not adequate to address the problem. It would be very helpful if all houses of worship addressed
the problem and taught people that using racist slurs and insults reflects IDOLATRY, the belief
that one’s ethnocultural group is superior to another. Beyond that, churches need to address
why people will definitely strike back physically and legally when attacked verbally by racist
insults and epithets. It would also help if churches would educate people on WHY racism is
sinful; why it is used as an instrument of sustained oppression against humans created in the
image of God; and why people who claim Jesus/Yeshua as Savior and Lord cannot and should not
bow to the god of racism in though, word or deed.
Charity – Absolutely. True discrimination—based on race, religion, age, gender, whatever—cannot be changed by ignoring it, and those “micro-aggressions” aren’t so micro when taken as a whole. I get that. That’s why I wrote, “Of course, when lines are crossed, when violence, threating behavior, or discrimination is involved, or when even name-calling becomes inescapable bullying, we must pull in the reins with whatever legal means are necessary to protect the innocent.“