“Mom you shouldn’t eat pizza. You should eat healthy. You don’t want to be fat!” Justin was on a health kick. His school had just gotten a new Sports and Fitness Director and let’s just say he was doing his job. Well. My son just called me and his Dad out. And my feelings were hurt. My brain sort of shut down on me as I tried to figure out a way to explain to him that what he said wasn’t wrong. He was right. But that his approach was a little harsh. Six-year-old harsh.
I can recall being twelve years old and for the first time having someone, who I did not know, make a mean comment about my weight. For years I’d been blessed to have family, friends, and classmates around me who saw me for me and not just my physical appearance. When I came across something that was such a contrast from what I’d become used to I was a bit shell-shocked. I was hurt and went home and cried. I cried a good long pitiful cry.
My Dad eventually noticed my preteen meltdown and took me into his arms. It took much prodding before he got the story out of me. I am dramatic at times and I can remember summing up my story with something along the lines of “No one likes me. I shouldn’t live anymore!” Yea, I know. I cringe as I write it now and even at the time I knew I had no intention of ending my life but it sounded like something you were supposed to say after someone was so unnecessarily mean to you. My father’s reaction though was not what I expected. I thought he’d continue to console me, beg me to return to being the bright young girl I was and get rid of all the negatives sentiments.
You know sometimes when the opposite of what you think is going to happen, happens? Stay Tuned.
What my Father did was, peel my wet face off his shoulder and shooed me (he literally shooed me) away from him.
“Now you’re just talking nonsense. If you can’t see how much people love you, you’ve got big problems.”
Good Bye and Good Night! That was the end of the conversation. I went back to sulk under the weight of my failed attempt at gaining sympathy from my Dad. But I couldn’t even muster up another tear. My irrationality was leaking out instead. I realized that I was being foolish as soon as the words left my mouth. Just saying the words out loud felt foreign to me. I’d tried on a new self-loathing coat that did not fit properly. In reality, for that one negative comment from a stranger, I’d had hundreds of positive commentary from the people who had front row seats to my knowledge, my personality, and my heart (i.e. those who mattered). The sing-song children’s rhyme pinged around in my head.
“Stick and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
Except they do. Especially when your six-year-old tells you you’re fat.
The power of words. I’ve seen them used as vehicles for change. Bold, centered letters on picket signs. Prose eagerly written for a college entrance letter. The first word your child learns to write. “Mom”. I’ve seen words used to oppress. Laws written barring the right to vote. Slurs scrawled across doors of homes. Notes passed in class about how ugly someone’s shoes are. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. Those words from that stranger hurt and though I did get over it the fact that I remember it so vividly all these years later proves that it did have an impact. For some children the words don’t roll off so quickly. Children take their own lives in an effort to escape the words being spewed at them from little mouths barely old enough to walk to school on their own. It’s hurtful and it stings and can even be deadly.
As a parent now I struggle with this concept of words as weapons. I’m a writer who is trying to teach my son, for his protection, that words don’t hurt. That they hold no real power. It’s hypocritical and just plain ole wrong. But there’s still a natural urge for me to protect my son. I want to give him all the tools and the fortitude to tackle any obstacles that may come up in his life. Now, as a first grader he’s not necessarily dealing with the crux of life issues but he is learning how to interact socially with others. More poignantly, he’s learning how to interact with others who sometimes say things that he does not agree with. Teasing and making fun. How do I teach him the importance of words, and the strong feelings they convey while simultaneously urging him to let harsh words roll off his back because they are after all “just words”? Oh, the struggle.
Words are our strongest weapon. They give us the opportunity to share openly as a community, to attempt to resolve differences without violence, an avenue to share joy and hope…and they hurt. I’m seeing a shift in society. It’s now cool to be cynical. It’s funny to say mean things. The “Mean Kids” culture is really taking on a new power and its impact is felt through the numerous news stories of children, barely even teenagers, taking their lives because of the constant teasing, taunting, and pure meanness of their peers. I fear having my child on either side of that coin. The aggressor or the victim. I also don’t want him to be a person that skirts the line and goes along quietly without opinions.
But I’m learning (we’re learning) that as with any weapon it’s imperative that the use and safety are taught concurrently. It’s a tricky situation but getting my son to know how important using his words responsibly and effectively is an ongoing lesson. Quite honestly it’s one that I haven’t totally mastered as an adult. We all have our “oops” moments, poor choices of words, name calling and generalizations. Being aware of what we’re saying and how its landing on the ear (and the heart) of another is the first step.
As it turns out, Justin understood totally. I have to start giving that kid more credit. His focus is now on celebrating health instead of admonishing fatness. And I’m in the process of losing some of those hearty LB’s. Win, win.