Words: More Powerful than Sticks and Stones

Janene - Bettendorf, Iowa
Entered on June 11, 2008

I believe in the power of words. Words, whether from the mouths of friends, family, acquaintances, or even strangers, have the power to build people up or tear them down.

As leader of a 6th grade Girl Scout troop, I witnessed the beginnings of something I painfully remembered from my past: girls, struggling with the angst left by puberty, attempting to break down others in an effort to validate themselves. Over the years I had used a lot of positive techniques to encourage the girls’ self-esteem. Still, as junior high approached, I began to see behavior – and words – that troubled me.

I selected a few scouts and placed colored beads on a table in front of each one, explaining that they represented beauty, intelligence, and talent. The object of the game was to get the most beads. I ridiculed one girl’s outfit, then took a bead. I teased another about a failed test, then took a bead from her. The insults continued until I reached the last girl. I told her I wouldn’t take away any of her beads. Instead, she would have to take away a bead from another girl for me and say something mean to her, as well. This was all done with an air of fun and the girls laughed throughout the exercise, but their eyes spoke differently. Though they clearly knew my behavior was wrong, it was also clear that they had seen it before… maybe done it before.

After counting my beads, I declared myself the winner. The girls didn’t agree. They also didn’t believe that I took away the others’ beauty, intelligence, or talent. They did acknowledge that I took something else. I took away their self-esteem. Though all of my comments were false, we discussed how deep inside each girl might be wondering: is it true? What you hear often becomes what you believe.

Then I took out a big bucket of beads and explained my core belief: there is enough beauty, smarts – whatever the coveted trait – to go around. They are not finite resources, nor is self-worth or happiness. You don’t have to take from someone in order to get. In fact, the best way to get a bead it to give one away. Positive words empower both the receiver and the giver. This I believe.