"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
For most of my life I've given "lip service" to this children's rhyme, pretending that it's an adequate defense against verbal harassment or intimidation. I've treated it like a talisman that protects against bullying, even going so far as to teach it to children in hopes that, under duress, they wouldn't withdraw from social contact or lash out in anger.
I'm not sure how successful I've been with others, but I'm pretty sure I've been a miserable failure incorporating that philosophy in my own life.
When I was 10, and my brother was eight, he decided one day to torment me with a clever use of my middle name.
"Coward Howard! Coward Howard!" he repeated incessantly.
"You really need to stop," I told him, after growing weary of the annoyance.
"Coward Howard! Coward Howard!" he continued. It was at that point I realized an alternative method of persuasion was going to be necessary.
So I slapped him -- hard -- upside his smirking face. He ran off crying to momma, and I spent the rest of the day in "time out."
Fast-forward 30 years. I'm a teacher at a junior high school. Being the model professional educator that I am, I have grown a beard to look more, well, "professorial." The problem is, some kids have decided that I look more like the bad guy in a certain cartoon series that features little blue people. And so, every day, that name is thrown at my back in the halls or whispered during class.
There are any number of ways I could have dealt with it. And I picked the wrong way, getting angry and taking it out on entire classes and groups and alienating a lot of kids I could have been influencing in positive ways. I should have been doing better. I wasn't.
Here lately, I've noticed something happening in high school football. In nearly every game I've seen, at one point or another there has been a flag thrown for "unsportsmanlike conduct." Usually this is the result of escalating "trash talk" that gets out of hand. A few weeks ago two teams from central Arkansas went at it on the field, and the result was the suspension of nearly half of one teams' players from the next game.
And we all know that "trash talk" is common on social media. So much so that a growing number of people are abandoning social media just to keep their sanity.
It seems as if snarky and derisive social interaction has gotten worse over the last few years. I'm not sure that's actually the case, but I am sure that such language poisons relationships and triggers violence. And down that road lies the disgrace and dishonor of a person, a culture or a country.
We need to do better. We need to watch our language. And we definitely need to think before speaking or writing and refrain from doing so if all it's going to do is start unnecessary conflicts.
"It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke, and go up in smoke with it..." – James 3:5-6 (MSG).
Doug Chastain is a retired teacher and is currently a large vehicle transportation specialist for the Siloam Springs School District. (Okay, he drives a bus.) He is also a grass maintenance technician at Camp Siloam. (Yeah, he mows the lawn.) You can contact him at dougchas[email protected] . The opinions expressed are those of the author.