Little could do more to increase the harm to victims of verbal bullying than does the recently televised, Canadian, public service announcement, “Words Hurt” (by Concerned Children’s Advertisers*). If children need to mentally shield themselves from slurs, insults and gossip, “Words Hurt” tells them there is no shield. Indeed, Bullying Canada’s “What is Bullying” web page calls the idea of this shield, “Myth #4”.
But that ‘shield’ does exist, and is found in the principle that lies behind these words:
Sticks and stones can break my bones,
but words can never hurt me.
Its grade school wording is deceptive. One may think the principle is simplistic and of little influence. Not so. As a teacher, I have taught it to verbally bullied young teenagers, and I’ve seen tears of appreciation as understanding dawned on the victim. Often, the bullying then died away. That shield is a principle that can save tens of thousands of children & adults from unnecessary stress, from damaged self esteem, and even from suicide.
What’s behind the principle:
We all know bullying starts with harsh words & tones of criticism towards the potential victim (the “target”). The bully is obviously not seeking friendly discussion. He wants to establish superiority. If the target shows shyness, fear, annoyance or anger, the bully quickly senses that he can influence his victim, right where it hurts. He has established, wordlessly, a kind of control, a superiority.
Worse, his target’s response proves it!
For bullying to really work, the target must unthinkingly accept the criticism as a meaningful personal attack. The victim’s wordless response is (e.g.): “Debbie thinks I am a loser because I am so out-of-fashion!” [fat, slow, ugly, a Paki, a Jew, gay, clumsy, etc.] Whether it is based in truth or not, she has accepted her position as a victim!
Even if the bully hits upon some small truth about his target, that truth does not define the entire person. The bully, of course, counts on the target believing it does.
So, both believe, wordlessly and very personally, that what other people think & say matters —matters more than facts and more than the entire character of the victim.
“Words Hurt” shows the logical consequence, and offers no solution:
Imagine if the bullied girl in the video knew that the bully words were nonsense? The ‘flying words’ would never touch her and she would not be hurt. Walking away would be easy.
Imagine how empowering that would be!
Bully words are nonsense that can only harm you with your permission.
Parents and teachers must teach the grade-school-saying, the ideas it depends upon, and the principle.
To help younger ‘targets’ of bullying to understand, suggest they think of the bully as a dog on the other side of a fence, barking its fool head off. The barking is a bit annoying, but all that barking is just meaningless noise… “Nothing worth taking seriously!” Really, it isn’t.
By early high school, students should be able to understand the principle itself, be able to explain it, and to live by it. These stories show characters who withstand bullies using their own sensible judgement.
Even if the bullying becomes threatening or violent (a greater problem and a legal issue), the child who understands the principle behind “words can never hurt me” knows the problem is not him, it’s the bully!
— Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week 2011: Nov 14 – 20 —
* The CCA may be hoping to arouse empathy to encourage support for victims & more direct action against bullying, but this is no way to do it.