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Sticks and Stones

I know it happens.  I have read about it.  I have heard about it.  It’s normal.  Typical.  A part of childrearing.  No big deal.  Yeah right.  Until you hear your darling child scream at you in that horrible mean tone, “I HATE YOU!   I.  HATE.  YOU!”

How can your wonderfully delightful child, who brings you so much joy, turn into a demon child in less than two minutes?  How can such horrible words be thrown out with such venom?  As if he or she is speaking the truth (although you know it is not true, because of course they don’t REALLY hate you – or at least you are pretty sure).  Ouch!

These words were directed at my husband last night.  HE was the bad guy.  I confess I was relived.  I know my turn will come.  But it was the first time either of us have ever heard them – and they are not easy words to hear. 

You KNOW they don’t hate you.  You KNOW what they REALLY want to say is, “I’m mad at you.  Really mad.  Really really really mad.”  But they don’t.  They have gotten too upset.  The reptilian brain has taken over.  They are furious and want you to know.  Younger children might hit instead.  But as they get a bit older, they seem to realize they can get a greater punch with words. 

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.  Yeah right.  Words are powerful.  Words can cut into you so deeply, in a way a punch or a strike never can. 

As a reader and a writer, I love words.  But I also know the power of words.  I try to be careful with words.  I know people who are not.  I know people who spew words all over the place and then think an I’m sorry makes it all better.  They don't seem to get that words etch themselves on your soul.  I’m sorry is helpful in healing the hurt but it does not erase what was said.  Just like a comic strip character with the bubble over his head, once words are out there, you can’t take them back.  They have been said.  All you can do is move on to the next frame. 

During the early years, when my kids would get frustrated or upset to the point they would “lose it” and have a tantrum or a breakdown, I would always say, “Use your words.”  I wanted them to talk about their feelings, to be able to identify and label what they were feeling.  It is a powerful man (or woman) who can do this.  Anyone can throw something, yell, scream, slam a door, punch a wall, whatever.  When you are 2, you can get away with it.  When you’re older, you can’t (and if you do, shame on you!) 

Well, last night my daughter used her words.  THOSE words.  This was after the crying tantrum that obviously didn’t get the desired affect.  Already at 4, she knows that words can hurt your feelings.  Her words were carefully chosen yet thrown out carelessly. She wanted to cause hurt because she was hurting.  We are the grown-ups.  We understand this.  But that doesn’t make the sting you feel when you hear those words any less real.

I talked to her about it the next day, in what I hope was a quiet and considerate Zen Mama Wannabe manner.  I was not trying to scold or lecture her at that point. I wanted to reassure her on how much she was loved.  I wanted her to know I understood how upset she had been.  But I also wanted her to understand that words can hurt people just as much as hitting can.  (And in our family that is simply not okay).

Perhaps now I have inadvertently given those words even more power than before.  Because of it, maybe she will choose to use them again sometime when she wants to get a desired effect.  My second grader (who watched the whole meltdown with wide-eyes) had some good advice for us: “You gotta remember not to take it personally.” 

Maybe he’s right (as usual)!  Maybe words only have as much power as you allow them to have over you.  Maybe some words DO get taken too personally. (Just think about the emotion attached to the n-word).  Or maybe they should. (After all, to think you can just say horrible, nasty, hurtful things and believe there is no consequence is not only wrong, but stupid too). 

4 going on 14.  That’s what worries us.  Hopefully we’re getting all the drama out of the way NOW.  Well, we can HOPE, can't we?  

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3 Responses to “Sticks and Stones”

  1. LarkLady Says:
    January 9th, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Oh yes, THOSE words hurt! I remember them all too well. Perhaps it will help you, just a little, to know that your daughter is going through a very normal phase. Not all children go through this one… but it’s not unusual. Fortunately for me, only one of my kids exhibited this particular behavior.

    That daughter, now 18, spent the Christmas and New Year holidays with her birth-mother and family. That family includes Mom, Dad, Son (my daughter’s half-brother) — and 2 cousins, age 12 and 4, who recently lost their parents and have come to live with their aunt. The 4-year-old girl is going through the same phase as your daughter, and my daughter was shocked to be on the receiving end of THOSE words.

    And while I sympathized with her pain — and she’s just a cousin, not aunt or parent — a very small piece of me felt avenged… since this is the daughter that used those very same words on me well over a decade ago. She doesn’t remember that, of course, and was shocked to learn that she too raked us over the emotional coals as a small child.

    Your son is very wise! His advice is perhaps impractical — it’s terribly difficult to NOT take it personally when it’s directed at you. But it’s also wise advice.

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