Sticks and Stones
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I suspect many of us used this response when we were children. Perhaps we even taught it to our own children. It’s a defense against name-calling and taunting. The saying has been around for ages. One of the first mentions of this adage was in the March 1862 edition of The Christian Recorder(1). Despite its longevity, I doubt very seriously that this statement has ever been effective in curbing verbal bullying.
The truth of the matter is words can hurt. Teasing, insulting, mocking, jeering, cursing—words can cause great pain. Poorly chosen words have destroyed marriages, friendships, business partnerships, and church relationships. How we talk to each other is something we all must take very seriously.
I think this charge is especially true for educators. There is a reason why James noted, “Not many of you should become teachers.” (James 3:1) Teachers are highly influential in children’s lives, second only to parents. As such, educators must choose our words wisely. Ask yourself…
Do my words build children up or tear them down?
Do my words heal or destroy?
Do my words demonstrate I am a person of faith?
Not long ago I led a Bible study on the Book of James. Over the course of several weeks, we explored this fundamental question: What does a life of faith look like? James did not pull any punches in his letter. He questioned the sincerity of people’s faith if the fruit of the Spirit was not overtly evident in their lives. One element he addressed in depth was our speech. James 3 is a chapter every educator should read periodically. This chapter, perhaps more than any other in Scripture, reminds us of two critical truths regarding our conversations.
1. Our words are powerful.
The human tongue is a small organ. It measures about three inches in length and weighs just over two ounces (2). However, though it is small, it is mighty! To illustrate the power of the tongue, James made two comparisons.
“We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth.” (James 3:3). If you have ever ridden a horse, you know how powerful the animal is. However, a very small bit in a horse’s mouth enables the smaller, weaker rider to direct the stronger horse.
“A small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go even when the winds are strong.” (James 3:4) The rudder is one of the most important components of a ship. This small mechanism enables a pilot to steer, control, and direct a ship in even the most adverse weather conditions.
The human tongue is like a bit and a rudder—small but powerful. How we speak to children can have an extraordinarily positive impact on them. Our words can be a tremendous source of encouragement. What we say can motivate and inspire children to give their best effort.
However, what we also must understand is our words can be toxic. James offered a third illustration of the negative effects of uncontrolled speech. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” (James 3:5-6) Our words can damage a child’s dignity. How we speak to young people—harsh words, sarcasm, profanity—can crush their spirit.
2. Our words will be judged.
Because there is so much power in our words, God holds us accountable for how we use them. Jesus made this abundantly clear during one of his confrontations with the Pharisees. “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words, you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37) God knows all we say, and one day we will stand before Him and give an account of everything that came out of our mouths.
As for educators, the bar will be higher in this area than it will be for the typical person. James reminded us of this reality. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) As people of influence, the standards for our speech are higher. As such, educators need to exercise great care in the words we use with children.
I realize this can feel a bit intimidating, especially when one takes into account what else James noted in his text. “No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8) Left alone, the tongue is unruly. Its natural tendency is toward evil. However, it is possible to control the tongue. When we place our tongue under the control of the Holy Spirit, our negative speech can be restrained.
Sticks and stones may break my bones…but words can certainly hurt others. Speak kindly, lovingly, and gently to your children. Build them up; don’t tear them down. Many children bring great difficulties and challenges with them to school. They need our empathy, understanding, and praise. In those times when you must discipline, do so with grace, mercy, and compassion.
Take time this week to reflect on the words you are using with children. Know that the power of your words can bring a blessing into their lives or a curse. Take heed of Paul’s advice when he noted, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) I pray that you will put your faith on display in the words that you use with children.
1 Martin, Gary. The Phrase Finder. Phrases.org.uk. Retrieved November 9, 2022.
2 Tongue. Wikipedia.org/wiki/tongue. Retrieved November 9, 2022.