“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
When I was little that rhyme was the big, bad, powerful comeback we used to ward off the vicious attacks of other kids.
That rhyme made us think we had some power against those words, but it didn’t really protect us from the sting of the words.
The rhyme didn’t stop the ugly words from sinking in and taking root. And it didn’t stop those words from becoming the way we saw ourselves or from imagining it was the way others saw us, too.
That rhyme got me thinking. When someone spews ugly words at us, and we look like we are unaffected, are we really unaffected? Or has the sting of the words seeped into our hearts, minds and souls?
If you can remember the sting of mean words spoken to you as a child, why would you ever label your kids in ways that could be hurtful to them?
I’m not talking about labels like “autistic” or “sensory seeking”; I’m talking about calling your child “sloppy,” “liar,” “stupid,” “awful,” etc. Do parents who do this believe that labeling their child will change something about them or help correct a behavior? Can that ever work? I don’t think so.
An “Awful” Boy
I was in line at the grocery store when I heard a mom very calmly and very firmly whisper to her son, “Are you an awful boy?” The boy tried to pull his body away from his mom, as if to escape the sting of his beloved mother’s words, but he couldn’t. He very sadly dropped his head and said, “Yes.” That child’s face told the whole story.
It was obvious this was not the first time mom had said those words to him. You could literally see the effects of his mom’s words being accepted by his emotional self. You could see the words becoming part of how he will define himself, now, and in the future — I am an awful person.
Imagine what those words would feel like if that mom were to yell those words at her boy. The intensity of the emotional sting would be much greater. The damage to his opinion of himself would be much greater too.
We’ve all read that parents need to separate the behavior from the child. And we all know we should tell our child that his behavior is awful, not that he is awful. I don’t agree.
I don’t believe that children can distinguish between the two, not really. Think of it this way. A group of little girls are playing. Trish looks at Suzie and says, “Suzie, your hair looks funny!” The other girls laugh. Does Suzie understand that she’s just having a bad hair day, or does she translate that comment into “I’m ugly”?
I suppose she could have placed those comments in the “bad hair day” category, if her parents had coached her on how to respond. Maybe if her parents had read Sally Ogden’s book, Words Will Never Hurt me: Helping Kids Handle Teasing, Bulling and Putdowns and she’d been coached to respond with a funny one-liner comeback like, “You think my hair is funny today, you should have seen it yesterday!” But most kids can’t deflect labels so skillfully.
Labels become deeply rooted in how a child sees themselves and affects all future decisions about what they are and are not capable of. Accurate or not labels tend to define who we are.
All children see their beloved parents as always being right. So when a parent labels a child, she simply accepts it and defines herself by it. The wound is so deep that it requires a great deal of personal work to change it.
Is there ever a time when you need to yell harsh labeling words at your child? I don’t think so. There are far better words to use — words that can actually motivate a child to change.
3 Questions That Teach and Improve Behavior
When your child behaves badly, try asking her,
“Was that kind?
Was it safe?
Was it respectful?”
Those three questions open up a dialog so you make your child aware of the impact of his or her behavior.
If you ever yelled a label at your child, and are looking for alternatives, then join us for my free webinar: Why Do I Yell and What Can I Do Instead? on October 5th at 11am PST.