We’ve all heard the same mantra, passed down for generations:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

The question is, is that true? I would argue that James would disagree:

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”‭‭

James‬ ‭1:26‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Though it is not often said, many people don’t consider words to be of any notable danger or substance. Emotional and verbal trauma is sometimes silently disdained as less impactful than physical trauma. This is an odd statement that may receive skepticism from some; yet there are many examples.

Though it was seldom spoken about openly by those outside the field of psychology, soldiers suffering from PTSD following combat in the First World War were often accused of cowardice for experiencing a mental breakdown. These men may have emerged physically unscathed – but their minds were scarred and their hearts broken. They were seen as being weak, as opposed to injured. Many faced military prosecution for experiencing mental collapse on the battlefield – some even faced execution. Yet the human heart is not designed for killing and death – and to be thrust into battle to take life was to destroy a little of the humanity within them. It took a hundred years and many wars for Americans to fully comprehend the effects and suffering of those with PTSD – and for those suffering to be taken seriously.

But this is not the only example, I’m afraid. A culture of degradation toward women, as well as many other socio-political factors, produced a society ashamed of the word “rape”. Sexual assault victims were even sometimes shamed for their suffering. Well meaning friends disregarded and downplayed the victim’s pain. Unkind armchair critics have even blamed women for the violence perpetrated against them! But this doesn’t just involve women who are physically raped – many women are objectified on a mental and vocal level. This issue is so widespread and sensitive that it has flooded the news and media in recent years. 

These two examples alone demonstrate that many people have silently disdained non-physical trauma. Even those within the Christian church!

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.”

Proverbs‬ ‭15:4‬ ‭ESV‬‬

‭‭Not all trauma is material, nor involves physical pain. A child of a divorced family may suffer for years. A child who is regularly belittled and insulted by a parent will eventually come to believe they deserve such treatment. A child who observes sexism, racism, or political prejudice in a parent will very likely come to accept these things as normal.  Such examples often require years of mental rewiring to heal.

The point is – words do have power. They are often volatile and dangerous and should be used carefully. 

“And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”

James‬ ‭3:6‬ ‭ESV‬‬

‭‭As parents we have to make a clear choice of how we approach our children. As so many Christian gentle parenting resources demonstrate, there are only two choices. There is gentleness and patience or there is aggression and belittling. There is love and humility or there is anger and pride. In the final account, there is Christianity or there is the world.

What does this mean for parents?

Parents – you know the power of words. You have seen it played out in real-time. And if you doubt it, simply look to your children. They know the power of the word “no” better than any of us. Our toddler learned it recently, and though I often can’t help but smile at his use of this powerful word, it has required patience. He has learned that “no” has an impact and influences people – and he is navigating this power (as we all did at one time). 

Yet the words “I love you” have impact too. Hugs, kisses, and smiles are all outward manifestations of the inward condition. The words “let’s play outside!” provoke instant excitement and response from our little one. There are a thousand such examples of positive words having real and lasting power. And a cultivation of gentle words have the power to foster a lovely relationship in the home.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”‭‭

Proverbs‬ ‭15:1‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Yet children don’t just hear what we say to them. Children are incredibly perceptive, and our every word and action are under their sharp focus and scrutiny. I have even heard it said that children are like a tape recorder, recording until sometime in their early twenties; at which time they pause the recording and press play. Basically, our every word and deed will influence them for the rest of their life.

My challenge to all Christians

But these principles don’t just involve parents. Every person – and especially every Christian – is on the front line of taming the tongue. Words have the power of life and death – those who have a healthy respect for this power will enjoy the sweetness it can bring to life (Proverbs 18:21)! 

What we say about children – and all young people – matters. How we describe them, talk to them and what we call them impacts their heart! Not only that, our words reflect how we perceive our children. Do we mock our children’s frustrations or belittle their needs? Do we chastise constantly, seldom encouraging them? Do we bulk them into a man-made category (“terrible twos”, “teenager”, “millennial”, etc.)? 

Our children are not just our offspring – they are the future of Christendom and the fruit of our love. A culture which despises Christ ultimately devalues people and belittles the young. A culture which loves God ultimately protects and appreciates children and the younger generation, providing a guiding hand and a cushion of love to fall back upon when life knocks them down.

My challenge to you, Christian brothers and sisters, is to choose gentleness and goodness as often as you can. Refrain from labels, bitter prejudices, and sharp words. In moments of guilt for past failures, remember the forgiveness of Christ and keep trying. Look for the silver lining in hard situations and train yourself to be grateful for little things in life. And most importantly, be bathed in prayer and the Word of God; it will be through Him that all these things are accomplished. Little moments build upon one another in the eyes of our children, and they will have an impact, one way or another.