A friend of mine commented to me that the "sticks and stones" line really did shape his attitude toward "hurtful" words when he was growing up. His point was that words spoken to him directly only hurt him if he let them hurt him. It was the words spoken behind his back that that caused him more concern because those words can do a world of damage.
I definitely agree with the second part of these comments. Saying one thing to a person's face while reserving the not-so-nice words until the person is out of earshot is dishonest if not outright immoral. If you're not willing to say something to someone's face you shouldn't say it to someone else. On that point we definitely agree.
However, I'm still unconvinced that the average person (much less a child) can really put up the emotional defenses to completely avoid the hurt of hurtful words. Human beings have feelings and they are often not tied to reason or within the bounds of our conscious control. The premise that someone cannot hurt your feelings unless you let them seems to be based on the idea that we can control how we feel by reason. While I would agree that we can control how we respond to our feelings, I do not think we can completely control how the words of others make us feel emotionally. Let's use an analogy of physical feelings to explore this a bit.
The topic of torture has been in the news quite a bit due to the Iraq conflict. How does a person deal with physical torture? Well, if I'm a trained CIA operative, I might be able to avoid "being broken" and survive this horrific experience. However, if I'm a regular guy with a normal pain tolerance, I might not last even 5 minutes in the hands of a talented interrogator. The CIA operative and regular guy may respond differently in the face of pain, but they both experience the pain. The pain is still real, and it still hurts.
Hurtful words are the same way. They hurt! How we deal with the emotional pain is another issue all together. Some people are like the trained CIA operative. They are able to compartmentalize their emotions and responses and control their behavior to a large degree. However, the pain still hurts. But most people aren't naturally born with these sorts of coping mechanisms, nor have they disciplined themselves to learn them. We all have varying degrees of pain tolerance when it comes to verbal abuse. Some of us deal with it better than others, and some of us are more aware of the damage and toll verbal abuse inflicts than others.
Is the healthy response to compartmentalize or try and use the mind-over-matter method to convince ones self that the pain didn't really hurt? Or, is the healthy response to feel the pain and deal with it? As someone who has tried both ways, I think we're better off dealing with the pain. The "sticks and stones" advice falls way short of that mark. It might be a clever come-back to a bully, but it doesn't do much to foster emotional health for those who are on the receiving side of hurtful words.
... previous thoughts on Word Power ....