“But words will never hurt me” – oh yes they certainly can and do

One of the stupidest children’s rhymes I learned by rote in my childhood was:

“Sticks and stones

May break my bones

But words will never hurt me.”

I am so old that rote (mindless) learning was still in vogue but Wikipedia tells me that it goes back much before my childhood and may have misled generations of children:

Sticks and Stones is an English language children’s rhyme. It persuades the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured. The phrase is found at least as early as 1872, where it is presented as advice in Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature, by Mrs. George Cupples”.

What nonsense! It goes on:

“This sentiment is reflected in the common law of civil assault, which holds that mere name-calling does not give rise to a cause for action, while putting someone in fear of physical violence does.”

No wonder with laws like this we have allowed verbal abuse and harassment. My view – and I suspect there is good evidence out there (please send me it) – is that words hurt at least as severely and often in a more long-lasting way than physical abuse.

You only have to see the totally justifiable outrage to online abuse to see how just ‘little words’ can have nasty big impacts – and add more volume to the clamour for their banning. So this year’s Anti-Bullying Week theme, “Stop and think – words can hurt”, is very pertinent and well-timed.

This is what is reported to Changing Faces by hundreds of children and young people whose faces (or bodies) look unusual, different or supposedly do not match up to the ‘expected looks’ of today. Lucas’s story is just one of them – see his disclosure on our website and its advocacy on The One Show.

We call this ‘appearance-related bullying’ and I suspect it is extremely widespread – not just affecting people with disfigurements. The Anti-Bullying Alliance has some research that indicates that 9 out of 10 children aged 11 and 16 have either been verbally bullied or witnessed it happening to others in the past year.

This statistic suggests that today’s appearance-obsessed culture makes every child liable to be bullied at times but at other times to be the bully – and that goes for adults too. Appearance is very often the peg – the stigma – on which the verbal abuse is hooked. Red hair, fair hair, skin colour, freckles, weight (too much or too little), height (too much or too little), nose (too…) – the list goes on and most children will admit to either being picked upon or picking using some nasty ‘little words’.

Anti-Bullying Week challenges us all – teachers, journalists, comedians, marketeers and advertisers, parents, children and young people. Words can hurt, even very little ones.