Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me…”


Anyone else remember that saying? I was probably about five the first time I heard it, I was at school and one of my peers had said something unkind. I can’t remember precisely what it was, probably something oh, so eloquent and charming like, ‘you smell!’ or ‘you’re ugly’, either way, the point is, I got upset. So naturally I ran and told a teacher, expecting… I don’t know, her to tell the other person off I suppose, maybe to impress upon him/her the damage words can do. She did none of that. She simply recited the aforementioned poem to me, and basically told me to toughen up.

This struck me as distinctly unfair, particularly as I’d been reprimanded that day myself simply for signing the number two across the classroom earlier to a friend and in answer to a question. (You can guess why that was a problem, but at the age of five I had no inkling what that gesture meant.)

But, in fairness, the teacher probably had a point. I returned to what I’d been doing, a little upset perhaps, but the whole argument was forgotten within the next few minutes. Both myself and the peer put the incident behind us, even becoming friends. Still,the memory of that argument has never left me. Not because I was scarred by what was said (heck, I don’t even remember what it was) or because I was particularly angry that my friend wasn’t punished. No, I’ve never forgotten what that teacher said and, now that enough time has passed to allow me to look back on things, how ridiculous her advice was.

Now, anyone who knows me will attest that I absolutely deplore modern-day political correctness! It is near impossible to say anything without offending someone today. I actually got called racist by someone for referring to myself as coloured?! Puh-lease! I’m not racist against anyone and if I was going to be, I wouldn’t start with myself! So this is not a case of political-correctness or over-sensitivity for me. Rather, it’s the weight of those particular words.

You see, in my case they worked. I was told to stop being sensitive, so I did. I have that ability you see. But what about those who can’t simply get over it, or forget it and move on? I mean, fair enough, no one sensible is going to carry the playground taunts of a five-year-old with them for too long. But then, the taunting doesn’t always stop there does it.

For some children, taunts follow them up through primary education (elementary school) and through to secondary (high) school. The juvenile and petty taunts gradually becoming more and more frequent and offensive. Granted, this isn’t always the case. Often children will grow out of taunting one another, perhaps even looking back on such childishness with a nostalgic smile and roll of the eyes.

But what about those that don’t. What sort of a lesson is ‘sticks and stones’ for them?

Personally, I always felt as though the teacher had taken the other persons side whenever it was quoted to me. It felt like the teacher was somehow blaming me for being upset. Most humiliating was when that little ditty was actually quoted in front of the taunter, so you could see their gloating expression as they got away with their crime. Because that’s what it was, ‘sticks and stones’ was a free pass for the taunters. It was both justification and confirmation that their words were harmless fun.

At the age of five, maybe, but the longer taunting continues, the more harmful it becomes. What we’re not taught, but what should be obvious, is that ‘sticks and stones’ becomes less relevant the older we get, because the older we are, the more malice we are able to place behind our words, and words can and do leave impressions.

We currently live in a society that claims to stamp down on insensitivity, whether that be racial, cultural, sexual or otherwise, and yet we seem remarkably quick to by-pass put downs when called out by a child. Instead of quoting ‘sticks and stones’, perhaps we should start teaching children about the power of words. Maybe that way, bullying can be stopped before it’s even begun?

I believe this video sums up my feelings far more eloquently than I ever could:

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