But Words Can Never Hurt Me: The Subtle Power of Language

by Faith Evans, M.Ed.

"Sticks and stones may my break my bones, but words can never hurt me," was practically a mantra on the playgrounds of my childhood. Even then, I didn't believe it was true . . . that "words can never hurt me." As a child, I knew that words hurt me on a regular basis. When I saw my playmate hold back his tears and lower his head when called a "sissy," something inside me ached for my friend, because though I couldn't navigate the nuance of language in the third grade, I knew the term "sissy" was disgraceful. My friend felt humiliated, and I knew inherently, that to be a "sissy" meant to be girl-like. Well, I was a girl, so that was shameful, too.

Times have changed . . . or have they? At camp, in school, in families, and in the workplace, we are more conscious of being politically, culturally, and gender correct. We work to keep demeaning words like "sissy" or "wimp" from creeping into our language, and yet we can do more. We can avoid using words that even hint at violence, when working with groups of people, especially, groups including campers.

War, crime, conflict, killing, and hatred are referenced throughout music, the media, and everyday interactions on the street and in classrooms. Tune in to a TV or radio program for thirty minutes, and you are sure to hear one violent phrase after another. Scan a few magazines and newspapers, and you will see violent words are prevalent in their headlines. Sports teams are praised for "annihilating" or "slaughtering" their opponents, and some video games make killing a contest. Violence is encouraged and often celebrated; our culture seems to demand it.

Living in a world of increasing violence begs the question, "Do you reflect violence in any way to your campers, in your camp programs, to staff, or parents?" If you are not sure, become a private detective and collect evidence about yourself. Without judgment, note when and where you tend to unconsciously use words or metaphors with violent connotations. Listen to yourself with an objective ear; be alert for language that may affect the atmosphere you wish to set for your campers through unintended messages.

Ask yourself what you can do to replace violent words with nonviolent expressions that promote your basic objectives for campers, so they experience compassion, respect, joy, emotional safety, connection, acceptance, trust, discovery, self-expression, and community.

Using nonviolent language is not about being for or against war, organized sports, gangs, graphic movies, or video games. It is about being wide-awake to what your language conveys, and its positive or negative impact on your listeners. It is about making choices.

You can choose to rename favorite games, such as War or Suicide. You can thoughtfully eliminate words like "execute," "take a shot," "killer," and "kick butt" from your vocabulary. You can also do something as simple as changing the common game instruction of "grab a partner" to "choose a partner."

Ty Cobb (1886-1961), one of the greatest and most exciting players in baseball history once said, "When I played ball, I didn't play for fun . . . . It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a contest and everything that implies, a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest."

Have times really changed? Yes and no. Professional baseball still requires the steely toughness that made Ty Cobb a winner in his time. Many camps, schools, and public athletic programs continue to serve and reward the physically gifted in survival-of-the-fittest contests. Fortunately, campers who want to play for fun, for fitness, and for a plethora of other reasons, are beginning to have many choices that don't require a struggle for the survival of the fittest. Hopefully, many of those choices are found at camp.

I began this story by recounting a childhood memory about sticks and stones. Naturally, one memory leads to another memory—I can hear the voice of my father admonishing me with the phrase, "Watch your mouth!" His seemingly harsh directive was meant to teach me, to protect me from harm, to ensure that I was respectful. And the phrase, "Watch your mouth" is as relevant today as it was when I was a child. (Neither my Dad, nor I, knew that today, I'd be watching my mouth more than ever. Neither of us knew the impact of his words.) As camp leaders, we want to teach our campers, protect them from harm, and to be respectful.

Being aware of and sensitive to the cultural influences of violent and nonviolent language, strengthens camp programs, invites interactions on a compassionate level, and increases the overall effectiveness of your camp purpose. When you do this, you help ensure that words are less likely to hurt your campers.

This writing is meant to assist us in "doing no harm" while building relationships and environments that are safe and healthy for all. The Persian philosopher and poet, Rumi, once said, "Out beyond all ideas of right and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there." If, in the process of learning to use compassionate language, we make ourselves wrong, or another wrong, then we have done the very thing we are learning not to do . . . harm to another. So be gentle with yourself, support your colleagues, drop judgment and assessment . . . and meet each other with care and respect "in the field" beyond right and wrong.

Ty Cobb quote accessed from www.cmgworldwide.com/baseball/cobb/ (2007).

Faith Evans, M.Ed., owner of PlayFully, Inc., specializes in experiential learning. She is a staff trainer, author, and presenter whose professional camp history spans forty-five years. She can be reached at FaithEvans@aol.com.

Originally published in the 2007 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.