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Words As Weapons: Learning To Use Words Positively


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Just a few days ago, I bumped into a former student in the supermarket. When she saw me, she stepped away from her shopping cart full of fruits and vegetables and warmly hugged me. “Mrs. Schonfeld, I wanted to tell you something that you said to me a few years ago that has stayed with me until today.” We had worked together on social skills to help her feel more comfortable when meeting new people. I tried to jog my memory and remember something specific I had said to bolster her confidence, but nothing particularly stood out. Instead, I smiled and said, “Yes, Sarah, what was it that I said?”

Her eyes filled with tears and she revealed, “You mentioned that when I smile, I often smile with my eyes too and that my whole face lights up. You told me that my sincerity comes through when I genuinely smile. As I was going on shidduchim, I would always remember what you said about my smile and would hope that others felt the same way. And then, when I went on a shidduch with someone who seemed really special, I had a stronger belief in myself. Most importantly, I didn’t hesitate to smile. And, now we are married and already have our first child.”

I congratulated Sarah, chatted with her for a few minutes, and then continued with my shopping. As I was picking out my string beans, I began to think a troubling thought. One comment that I had made to Sarah several years ago had influenced her in wonderful ways. Yet, I did not even remember making the comment. Of course, in this instance, the comment I made was positive and helpful. However, what about comments that might have indirectly hurt one of my students? Years later, an accidentally ill placed comment could still have a negative effect. Simple words can have such a huge outcome on those around us. That’s why we have to be so careful about both what we say and the way we say it.

Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones,
But Words Will Last Forever

Many of us remember our parents telling us that if people called us names or hurt our feelings, we should simply tell ourselves, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Unfortunately, that logic does not hold true. In fact, verbal abuse can be as harmful, if not more, than physical abuse.

The New York Times reported several extreme instances of verbal abuse or bullying. In March, 2007, 17-year-old Eric Mohat shot himself after a long-term tormentor told him in class, “Why don’t you go home and shoot yourself; no one will miss you.” More recently, Carl Jospeh Walker-Hoover, an eleven-year-old boy from Springfield, Massachusetts hung himself after being incessantly hounded by classmates about his appearance.

The instances above are radical cases of verbal abuse and bullying; however, they illustrate the power of words and their effect on children’s psyches. Often, we underestimate the consequences of our comments, but even seemingly innocuous comments can have disastrous results. A poem by Chani Zirkind beautifully demonstrates how five simple words can change a person’s life:

WORDS

I burst out laughing when I heard her say,
The funniest joke I heard all day.
She didn’t say one, she didn’t say two,
I marveled at what her humor can do.
I was sitting here just moments ago,
A little bit bored and a little bit low,
And in she walked with her comments and all,
And my gloominess left with no trace at all!
I wondered what part she had in the play,
I heard took place in the school yesterday.
I sat and imagined the friends she attracts,
Her lucky campers with whom she interacts.
Baruch Hashem for a talent like hers!
Creating happiness just out of words…
Words
I’m not so sure
Words
There’s more to her.
What I thought
isn’t true
Because of what
words
can do.
I’ve seen her true self with family at home,
But once she steps out her humor’s unknown.
Yes, she’s tried to tell others her jokes,
But what occurred put down her hopes.
Someone said five words, no more,
That closed her in, closed up her door.
Her self-confidence to never give up,
Was lost in a comment,
“I thought you grew up.”

Adult Impact on Children

Miriam Adahan’s book Sticks and Stones: When Words are Used as Weapons transplants the discussion of verbal bullying into the realm of Jewish thought. Rashi explains that Lo sonu (Vayikra 25:17) refers to hurting others with words – ona’as devarim. There are multiple examples of ona’as devarim:

Getting a person’s hopes up unnecessarily. For example, asking a storeowner a price of an item when you have no intention of buying it.

Shaming a person by reminding him about a defect he can do nothing about.

Acting out of spite, as in sending someone on a wild-goose chase when you know they will not find what they are looking for.

Humiliating a person, such as reminding someone of his previous immoral behavior.

Frightening people by getting enraged at them.

Ona’as devarimis painful for people of all ages, but can be particularly devastating if an adult is interacting with a child and intentionally or unintentionally uses words to hurt that child. Children will often think that adults know better, therefore if an adult is telling them something that is hurtful it must be true. This will lead to an internalization of the comment that can cause irreparable damage.

Children with Other Children: School Bullies

Today, many schools have adopted a zero-tolerance policy for bullying. Yet, the problem still exists, prompting bullied children to miss school days because they fear going to school.

What types of children are singled out for bullying? Often, they are different in some way: the way they talk, their name, the way they look or their family structure. But, more often, the common denominator is that children who are bullied do not fight back. Bullies tend to seek out those who will not defend themselves. Remember, a bully is looking for power and most of the time is trying to show everyone how tough he or she is. What better way to do that than to find someone who won’t fight back?

How can we as parents or teachers combat bullying in the classroom? There is no curriculum for opposing bullying, however, there are ways to build a better school community:

* Make getting to know each other part of the school curriculum. This way, students will not be singled out because they are different or “weird.”

* Eliminate hierarchy. Don’t allow the same students to be the monitors or helpers every single day.

* If you see bullying, immediately say, “We don’t do that here.” Subsequently, report the problem to the principal.

As adults, we are responsible for creating safe environments for our children, in and out of school.

Solutions Outside of the Classroom

The first step towards combating verbal abuse or bullying is to develop sensitivity towards the feelings of others. To better understand others, we can ask them to share with us how they feel about our words and actions. We can treat each person as an individual, recognizing that what might hurt one person might not hurt another. Most importantly, we can decide never to intentionally hurt someone with our words, regardless of how frustrated or angry we might be at that moment. Social skills training can enable us to think before we speak, gain confidence in our own achievements, and acquire dignity when interacting with others.

Perhaps a mashal or parable can help us better understand this. There is a famous story about two men having a contest on the beach, each attempting to be taller than the other. While one man was digging a hole next to his opponent, the other was building a small hill to stand on. Perhaps the best way to combat ona’as devarim or verbal abuse is to emulate the second man: build your own hill. Instead of digging underneath others in order to put them down, build yourself up through acts of compassion, chesed, and charity.

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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