“Sticks and stones will break my bones and words will cut even deeper”
A twisted knife in every parent’s soul. Other kids can be mean. We try to protect our children from the cruel and nasty side of human nature for as long as we can, but the day comes when its gruesome claws inevitably encroach upon their world. The first slap of it is often the hardest. Our children’s previously innocent and naïve view of the world and the people in it, is shattered, and along with that splinters a small piece of our hearts.
After three post-school afternoons of sheer joy and excitement from the absolute love of his new school, my son arrived home on Friday afternoon just not quite looking his normal optimistic, cheerful self. I asked him how his day was, and although he verbalized “fine”, his nonverbal response didn’t parallel with that. I knew his teacher, whom he completely adores, had needed to leave school early due to an emergency, so I gave him a hug and reflected that it must have been pretty tough and different with things being a little out of routine with his beloved educator not there. After lunch, I left him and his sister to play, but not even a few minutes later, there were blood curdling shrieks, hysterical crocodile tears and a very unhappy little sister. Christian, my usually kind and thoughtful child, had snatched her rice crackers and bumped her roughly, resulting in sibling chaos. I summoned them both to the kitchen, Rachel still wailing, and attempted to determine what had happened. As I began reprimanding Christian for his behaviour, he threw himself on the floor, covered his face and began sobbing. At this point, I knew that there was more going on in his little world, than a change of routine in his school day and a packet of rice crackers.
I sat down on the floor, dragged him onto my lap where he buried his face in my shoulder, and asked him what had happened that day. His response brought tears rushing to my eyes and ignited a fire in my throat. “Someone said I couldn’t play with them”. He was crushed. I was crushed. My kind little boy, whose teacher had just the day before told me that he was playing so nicely with boys of all ages on the playground, had been rejected and dismissed, and in that, deeply hurt. I held him tightly, battling to keep back the tears of my own, and let him sob and sob. I knew the moment had come. I needed to explain human nature, before he began believing that underlying playground message which he had been thrown, “There’s something wrong with you”. I needed to explain to him that not everyone in life is going to be nice or kind, sometimes people can be nasty, but that is a reflection of a negative and unhappy space which they are in, and not a reflection of who we really are.
Many of the children I see in therapy, who struggle with self-esteem, believe exactly that- that there is something inherently wrong with them, the person they are, their uniqueness, their mannerisms, their attributes. The seed of ‘I am bad, I am not worthy, I am less valuable’ is often planted by peers, or adults who just don’t know better. I have counselled bitterly sad and even suicidal children and teens, who believe their worthlessness as a result of years of accepting what one or two peers may have said to them and about them.
For a few hours, Christian had internalized the message that one child had conveyed in one sentence. “I am unlovable, I am unworthy, I am not fun to be around”. When the sobbing subsided, I explained to Christian that children who say nasty things to others, and children who are unkind have very sad and unhappy hearts, and that it had nothing to do with him not being a good friend to play with, or him not being lovable.
It’s human nature to take on board what others say to us and about us. We are far too quick to believe comments which may be made, to take them personally, and to internalize them as part of who WE are. We need to teach our children to critically evaluate whether spoken word is truth, or whether it is a reflection of someone else’s difficulties, someone else’s sadness, someone else’s tormented soul. At times the root of unkindness may even be fear or jealousy. We need to teach our children to be able to step back and to analyze what others may say to them and in doing so to remember who they truly are so that they do not absorb the cruelty of others. We need to evaluate the evidence.
When Christian and I together reflected on the real evidence, he was able to begin to see what really was true. The evidence was that Christian had happily played with many other children both that day and the previous three days. He had completed exciting searches for ladybirds and grasshoppers, played on the tractor, explored the pirate ship- all this with other kids. The EVIDENCE was NOT that he was unlovable, unlikable, or not a nice child to be friends with. The EVIDENCE was in fact the opposite. I told him how proud I was of him for all the amazing attributes I see in him- his care, thoughtfulness and consideration, his skills at drawing rocket ships, his incredible Lego and puzzle building and I told him how much I loved him. After further quiet reflection at bedtime and when he woke up on Saturday morning, he had processed it, and was back to his happy, confident self. He was back to believing the evidence.
It often takes only one nasty comment to completely call into question all we have previously believed and know to be true about ourselves. Evaluation of truth takes practice, and our children often need guidance and support in order to do this.
Whether it’s the playground or the work space, unkindness exists. So often our children grow up contaminated by other people’s wounds, which then become their own, and fester, lead to low self-esteem and even depression. I can’t take away that hurt that Christian felt, but I can help him learn that the message conveyed out there on the playground wasn’t a reflection of him, there wasn’t evidence for truth, and that instead of taking everything others may say about us to heart, to understand the place of sadness and misery that these comments often come from. It doesn’t make unkindness okay, but it does help us create distance and boundaries from it.
We can’t keep our children in the “happy innocent world bubble” forever, no matter how desperately we wish we could. What we can do though is to teach them the skills of evaluation, the skills of understanding that the emotional wounds of others can become knives, and of understanding that we don’t have to become targets for those knives. We can teach them to acknowledge their emotions and to identify and understand feelings in others. The more our children understand about emotions, the better equipped they will be to defend against any cruelty which may come their way. We are only responsible for our own actions, not those of others. Teach your children to evaluate evidence, to evaluate truth. This will give them the confidence to deflect unkindness, and to remember who they truly are.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones and words will cut even deeper”