Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
We’re told a lot of lies as children, but this ranks among the worst in my mind. I mean, really, sometimes we’d prefer a broken bone to the words we’ve been told. The impact doesn’t last nearly as long.
There’s been a major focus recently on bullying, especially among kids, and this is vitally important. For far too long we’ve just gone with the notion that kids will be kids and people say things without realizing how much they hurt. Obviously kids will be kids, and to some level we’ll never be able to avoid people unintentionally saying hurtful things. But occasionally the power of words hits just a bit too close to home for me.
You see, I was a brat as a child. For real. A horrible child. I don’t even remember all of it, but I remember plenty enough to know that I was often a nightmare for my family. I was (still am?) overwhelmingly stubborn, snarky and loud, and I had a horrible temper. Looking back, I can think of specific instances where I said truly horrible things.
I thought of this recently while talking with one of my friends. She told me that something her brother said to her when they were kids had stuck with her and caused her, even to this day, to no longer do something she’d previously loved. It was just a rude, selfish comment from many years ago that had fundamentally changed something about the way she lived her life.
This made me really sad, probably sadder than it really should have made me. Because it struck very close to home. Immediately when I heard it I wondered if my sister would have any stories like that. I really hope she doesn’t, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she did. I said a lot of mean things to her when we were kids.
I’ve also had numerous conversations with friends about our respective body image issues, and it reminded me of times when I was a kid that I was on the other end of the hurtful exchanges. So many memories from way back then are little more than flashes, but many of those flashes focus on specific words people said to me. Hurtful words. They still stick with me to this day.
We teach kids these fun rhymes because we want them to fight off hurtful words, and in the moment sometimes it seems to work. But who knows how many of those words will take up residence deep in their minds and memories and just sit there for years, festering until they permanently change the way they live their lives?
It gets even worse in our society since it doesn’t always require a specific person saying something. So often we’re bombarded with images of perfection and what we should supposedly be like, with the underlying suggestion being that we either need to conform or hide. Eventually we comply, and anytime we start to think we can break free of those chains the words return to haunt our thoughts.
It’s still a struggle for me on both sides. I like to believe I’m not nearly as stubborn as I used to be (although I’m still far more stubborn than I’d like to admit), and I think my temper is mostly tamed. But I still love snark, sarcasm and wit, and I’ve been guilty too many times of letting that get the best of me and saying something hurtful even when I didn’t mean it to be.
I think that’s why when I discover friends with a similar sense of humor I enjoy our conversations so much. It almost seems like a safe place where we can both acknowledge that in the midst of our sarcastic discussion we’ll both say some mean things, but neither takes it as such because we know the context of what we’re saying.
But still I can’t get over that thought, that realization that I’ve likely said something to which I’ve never given a second thought but has had a lasting impact on someone, and not for the better.
The people closest to us are the ones with the most power over our lives. Parents, siblings, close friends and family: their words and actions inform and impact us as we grow and mature. Even when they’re too immature or insensitive to realize it. Even when they’re just “kids being kids.”
For a long time my sister and I didn’t have the best relationship. I’d say that was entirely my fault, since I was such a brat growing up. But today I am ever thankful and truly blessed to have her as a big sister, and the last thing I would ever want is for one of the countless insensitive things I said as a kid to have a lasting, hurtful impact.
I’ve never had a major broken bone, but I’ve known a lot of people who have. It’s amazing what modern medicine can do to help people heal from such injuries in a matter of weeks and months, and I’ve even heard that when healed properly the bone is actually stronger.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words have the power to forever change me.