Saturday, June 9, 2012

Sticks and Stones

We all know the old children's verse, and those of us who are parents probably repeated it to our children when they skinned their knee or fell and hurt themselves.

Sticks and stones
may break my bones
but words will never hurt me.

Whoever ever came up with that notion?  

I love the description I found in Wikipedia:  "The phrase is found at least as early as 1872, where it is presented as advice in Tappy's Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Mrs. George Cupples"

Mrs. Cupples, you may have been a very nice person, but you are (or I guess were) an idiot!  There.  I've said it.  How does it feel to be called an idiot, Mrs. Cupples?  Does it hurt?

Words are incredibly powerful and have the power to impact your entire life. for good or for ill.  I still cringe when I remember hearing my mother say "You're too fat" when I wanted to take ballet at age 7.  And I smile proudly to myself remembering when Jimmy Wohl, looking at a picture of me, in 7th grade, after I had been on a diet, said that person couldn't be me because she was too thin. 

I still blush when I think of my father teasing unmercifully for misspelling "dessert."  I never misspelled it again, I'll tell you.

I remember the day when our kids were in grammar school.  I was working in the office and was running something off on the ditto machine.  The machine was right in front of a window and there were two students standing outside the window, laughing with each other, pointing at me and trying to decide if I was a man or a woman.  That was so incredibly embarrassing.  I feel my face blush even remembering the incident.

I'll bet everyone reading this immediately thought of a time when someone said something to you that has stuck with you through the rest of your life...and I'll bet you've forgotten all of the playground cuts and bruises you got in grammar school.

I have only to look at the times when I said things I regret terribly throughout our children's growing up years.  If I could take back anything it would be "Jeri knows better," though that line has certainly given my adult children plenty of material to tease me with over the years.

This morning I watched a video of some African adults who had come through the Compassion sponsorship program.  The purpose of the video was to invite them to share what sponsors should write to their children.  Sponsors are always looking for inspiration and Compassion does all it can to make it as easy as possible. It's so difficult, when the letter I write today takes 2+ months to reach the recipient and even if the recipient answers it right away (almost none of them do), that answer will take 2+ months to get to me.  Under those conditions, developing any kind of relationship, especially when your child is too young to write and when there is a language barrier, is very difficult.

But still these Compassion graduates unanimously agreed that the letters were what got them through difficult times.  One man talked about his sponsor writing that she loved him and he broke down in tears these many years later remembering what a difference those words made to him.  "Those were words I didn't hear in my day to day life," he said and he said that knowing that a stranger in a foreign country was proud of him and loved him made him want to be all that he could be.  

Another panelist remembered what a difference his sponsor's letters had made for him when she told him over and over again how proud she was of him and how much she loved him. He said until that time he had no self esteem, but her repeating those words over and over and over to him, words he never heard from his own family,   helped him begin to believe in himself. He is now a self-confident man, a leader in his community.
You saw the pictures of Murugi I posted yesterday.  This is a girl who has written me a total of TWO letters, yet she seemed to find my letters very special.  In the explanation I read on Facebook, she was very eager to have someone take her picture with the letters so she could show how important they are to her.

It hurt my heart to read that she was afraid that if she would come to the United States she would be called a "dirty N*****" and thrown out of places.  I immediately sat down and wrote to her about race relations in this country, about how some people still did not like black people, but most people accepted black people as just a part of the community.  I also pointed out that we have an African American president, and how much I admired him.

I read a book called "Sheba's Song," a couple of years ago.   It's a fictionalized account of the relationship between a man in the United States and his sponsored Compassion child in India.  The book is one long letter to her sponsor, written by the adult Sheba, telling him the things that was unable to write to him when she was a child.  It is interspersed with letters written by the sponsor talking about the life of himself and his family and you can see how the seemingly inconsequential things he wrote to her had a tremendously beneficial effect on how she viewed herself and her life.

We don't always have the chance to see the kind of difference we make in the world, but if we strive to be positive when delivering messages to others, especially children, we may have a positive impact greater than we will ever realize.   By the same token, telling a 7 year old she's too fat for ballet may deliver a blow to her self esteem from which she may never really fully recover.  Isn't it better to try to be positive?


Harriet said...

Of course words can hurt. I think the original advice was to point out that the appropriate response to a verbal slur is not physical violence.

I learned very young that I should just ignore people who used nasty words to describe Jews. I learned, and so did other Jewish kids. There are a lot of adults who never learned not to say that. As I believe I have mentioned recently.

Kwizgiver said...

What a great post! I am very conscious of what I say to my students.