“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I do not know where this phrase originated, or who first told it to me, but I do have vivid memories of yelling it across the playground during recess as a child.
As far as I can tell, most of the boys I grew up with appear to have matured into wonderful people, but even under the best of circumstances, childhood can be tough. There was definitely a pack mentality when it came to ridiculing the easier targets among the girls in my class, of which I was definitely a prime candidate. And so I retaliated in the only way I knew how—feigning emotional and intellectual superiority by asserting that I was above their childish taunts. Of course their words did hurt, and in a way that can take longer to heal than the metaphorical broken bones that I (thankfully) did not suffer.
As an adult, avowed book nerd, and occasional writer, the power of language is not lost on me. I am not a mother myself, but I still manage to do quite a bit of mothering in my life between my students, my niece and nephew, and the young ones that my friends are happily surrounding me with. Because of this, I am becoming increasingly aware of how important words are to our children, and this newfound awareness is why the story of a mom in Columbus, Ohio, who is making waves on Facebook struck such a chord with me.
On October 6, Merritt Smith posted a photo showing her 4-year-old daughter in the hospital, needing stitches after a boy in her class hit her in the face. After explaining to the man behind the registration desk what happened, the clerk, no doubt meaning to make the little girl smile, said, “I bet he likes you.”
Smith was furious. While acknowledging that the man was probably just trying to lighten the mood, she pointed out that by casually making this remark, the man was essentially telling her young daughter that violence is a form of affection. Smith’s post, which has been shared more than 30,000 times, states:
“As soon as I heard it, I knew that is where it begins. That statement is where the idea that hurting is flirting begins to set a tone for what is acceptable behavior. . . . It is time to take responsibility for the messages we as a society give our children. Do not tell my 4-year-old who needs stitches from a boy at school hitting her, ‘I bet he likes you.’ NO.”
Smith’s story has been picked up by multiple media sites, with many heartbreaking comments from victims of domestic violence commending Smith for standing up to the idea that there is a bright side to a young girl being hit in the face.
In reality, sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break one’s spirit. Let’s all make sure, like Merritt Smith, that the message we are sending young girls and boys is that all forms of affection, be they verbal or physical, should be about building someone up, not breaking them down—and that “he must like you” is never an acceptable excuse for harmful behavior.