Parenting Wisdom in Shorthand

By: Judith Costello

father and child beach

A posted meme says: “‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’–NOT TRUE! Words hurt, scar and leave deep wounds all the way down to the soul.”   On the surface this meme sounds right. And it has been shared almost 200,000 times!

But when I saw it, a red flag started waving. My reaction was, “Don’t invalidate the parenting wisdom that is ages old.”

An incident came immediately to mind. My son was in first grade. He had been riding the bus to school for a few days when he came home with tears in his eyes. Another boy had been taunting him. The boy’s words were hurtful and mean. And yes, it made my son feel “wounded.” So how is a parent to react?

My husband and I took him in hand and talked for quite awhile sitting on the side of his bed. After about 30 minutes he was calm; within an hour he was laughing about it. The next day he walked past that boy, looked him in the eye and smiled.

And do you know what our first words were? You guessed it—“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”

We explained what that saying means of course. It doesn’t mean that words are never hurtful. It means–we can choose how we react! We can choose what we allow to settle into our hearts.

There are four important lessons here: 1) Bullies will always be with us. 2) Bullies are sad people. Their words come out of their troubles, their desire to control others and their ignorance. 3) It’s important to stay strong in yourself and let the mean words wash away like water going down the drain.   4) St. Paul said, “We do not wage war with human resources” (2Cor. 10). We must pray and stay focused on God’s words of love and mercy.

The message of this maxim is Biblical. We are called to help our children learn ways to cope with mean-spirited people.  If we don’t teach them  that they have resources for dealing with hurtful words, then our children will feel their identity is determined by mean people. And they will think that the government, or someone outside themselves, has to punish others to make things right.

So my response to the meme is two-fold:

1) There is history and wisdom in maxims like “sticks and stones…” That particular expression can be attributed to around 1862, published in a Christian magazine, but is probably much older. And the point of the “sticks and stones” saying is to teach children they can rise above whatever meanness they experience. Jesus said we will be persecuted and reviled, and we can actually celebrate it! We can unite our hurts or troubles with the suffering of Jesus and offer it up for our prayer intentions!

The tools of our battle against the meanness and lies of the world are  in our faith. St. Paul dealt with his detractors by saying this…”they only demonstrate their ignorance”…”we arm ourselves with the shield of faith.” 2 Cor. 10:12 and Eph. 6:16.

2) The first part of the meme has to do with  how we respond  to the meanness of others. That is what I have been addressing here. The second part of the meme has to do with  what we say to  others. That too is covered by an old bit of parenting wisdom: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Again this is a maxim…a shorthand way of saying important things. Jesus frequently talked about how we should avoid gossip and speak with charity. We should consider every word before we speak.

Words can definitely be used as weapons and that too is in the Bible. Our goal as Christians is to use words to be a light in the darkness, rather than  as knives that cut.

So as far as this meme goes, here’s another maxim….”Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” It’s great to come up with new ways to say that “words hurt, so watch what you say.” But don’t throw out the teachings of our ancestors in order to say that.

Credit to Judith Costello of CatholicExchange.


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