“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This old adage has been the topic of multiple bullying conversations in the last 20 years among educators, but do you know its origin?
In the midst of the Civil War, a meeting of African American parents at church focused on how to protect their children if slavery was outlawed. Even if the slaves were freed, they knew there would still be a lot of antagonism and hatred to face and their children would be the brunt of this animosity. Parent after parent lamented the situation and expressed fear and concern for how to protect their children. Then, one man stood up and proclaimed, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” At first he was ridiculed, but he went on to share that the only way to “protect” their children was to empower them on the inside. They couldn’t change society, but they could control themselves and their responses. They made a pact that day to teach their children this phrase. Each night at home they coached their children to say it over and over until they couldn’t get it out of their heads. For, if they could control their response to jeers and insults, they would be able to rise above and believe in their inherent dignity.
No, we’re not going to start using this phrase at St. Peter’s. However, we are going to reinforce the resilience aspect that it encourages. Don’t get me wrong, I know words can hurt. All of us have experienced it. That’s why we reinforce kindness and respect on all levels here at school. But, in the real world, people can be mean and we need to know how to respond. We also need to teach our children how to respond.
Jeff Veley, award-winning speaker and social skills educator, shared the above story with teachers last week. He also spoke to students in three Catholic schools in Lincoln, including grades 3-8 at St. Peter’s. His dynamic presentation carried a powerful message. He himself had not only experienced bullying/aggressive behavior in his inner city school, but he also became a social worker dealing with some of the hardest cases. Yet he and a fellow worker one day just asked themselves, “Are we really making a difference?” So many young people they saw shared the same message, “Everybody hates me.” No matter how many anti-bullying and zero tolerance programs were put in place, students still were not able to rise above the hate. Jeff shared that in the best anti-bullying programs, schools would boast of a 20% decrease in bullying. As he stated it, “A 20% is a failing grade!”
His message grew out of research from psychologists like Izzy Kalman and work with speakers like Brooks Gibbs. The process is simple, but the results can be life-changing. He explains to children how aggressive behavior (put-downs, etc.) is a “power” game: someone wins and someone loses. When the target of the behavior gets upset, the aggressor wins, but if the target stays calm, the aggressor loses and usually loses interest in continuing the behavior. He encourages students to use a 2-step Peace Plan:
- Don’t get upset.
- Treat them like a friend.
To demonstrate how this works, he
calls a student up from the audience to play the “Golden Rule Game.” He has the student call him names or pick on him in some way. The first time, he gets upset and retaliates with his words. This eggs on the student, who continues the behavior and the student “wins.” In the second round, the student again acts as an aggressor, but Mr. Veley remains calm and treats the student like a friend in his words and manner. This unexpected behavior disarms the student and Mr. Veley “wins.” As he says, “Confuse them with kindness.”
It’s not magic, nor is it a perfect solution. Name calling and other verbal insults are never right and can be hurtful, but the key is to empower students with a means of effecting a real change, to help them be resilient. As Jesus taught us in the Golden Rule, love changes everything. Mr. Veley emphasized that if a student is being physically harmed, they need to get help from an adult immediately. But if they are being attacked by words, their first defense is to use the Peace Plan. In rough schools where this process has been fully implemented, results have been a 90-95% reduction in aggressive behaviors! Plus, students are less likely to feel like helpless victims and are more likely to feel empowered to respond in a healthy way.
This message fits right in with the PeaceMakers program we have implemented this year. In addition to teaching virtue and reinforcing social skills, this tool helps students to grow in resilience and learn how the power of love and kindness can change behaviors – and possibly hearts. If you would like to know more about Jeff Veley’s program, this is an excellent 25 min. video about the Peace Plan as well as ways that adults can then assist students in developing resilience when they are faced with challenging situations from peers. https://www.jeffveley.com/free-video-training-delivery/?mc_cid=2db20ac102&mc_eid=926e394ec7
The next time you find yourself the brunt of someone’s unkind words, try out the Peace Plan. You might just be surprised at the results. God bless you!