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Sticks and Stones

My 8-year-old daughter recently expressed to me some nervous anticipation about what someone might say to her that can be summed up in her anxiety-provoking question, "What if they hurt my feelings?"

In classic dad form, I reactively advised an old adage, "Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words shall never hurt me."

She somewhat smugly admonished me saying, "But, Dad, that's not true!"

"Ah, do tell more," was my reply.

She, happy to educate her father, began to tell me that if someone breaks a bone (citing a friend by name as an example), then it heals. But if someone's feelings get hurt, that doesn't heal.

As a physician for feelings I was mildly offended, and she could sense that. To further back up her stance, she invoked an object lesson she experienced at school where paper hearts were taken, crumpled up and thrown on the ground, and then brought back and unraveled. It had been pointed out that although the heart was no longer crumpled up, it still had wrinkles that, try as my daughter might, could not successfully smooth out. It was emphasized to her that the adage I shared was not true - that words do hurt, and that their effects were forever.

Unfortunately our conversation was cut short, so I was left with my own internal dialogue that we would later explore together.

It seems the paper heart approach is designed for individuals who spew verbal garbage - the "bullies" of the world - and that its primary intent overall is to assist with reducing aversive stimuli, in this case negative and hateful speech. I want to make it clear I think this is an important value and often worthy of our pursuit. However, as an unintended consequence, this communicated to my daughter that words (socially-constructed, non-physical symbols) can cause permanent damage to a vital organ - that she is fragile, incapable of repair, that her heart (the metaphorical location of her feelings) is like paper - flimsy, thin, easily discarded.

This new perception (that situations that hurt my feelings causes irreversible damage) heightens her threat sensitivity and manifests itself in her a significant nervous anticipation about what others might say to her. My catastrophic dad brain sees this potentially turning into not so functional pursuits of "safe spaces" and overuse of the words "triggered" or "toxic" - which concepts in some contexts can be very functional.

Unfortunately, even heroic efforts at reducing adversive situations will not be completely successful. My daughter will encounter situations where people are mean, unfair, and where she will have "hurt feelings." So what, then, will my daughter do with her paper heart?

Here I submit to you that we couple our efforts to reduce adversive situations with a strengthening of human resiliency. How can I help my daughter see both - that on the one hand aversive experiences can be excruciatingly impactful and on the other that she has the capacity to navigate this bravely?

"Daughter, your heart is a muscle," is what I will tell her. It is capable of strongly pumping day and night even if you pay it no attention. It is consistent, persistent, and will be so until your last breath. It is surrounded by support - lungs, bones, muscles, a body that can hear, see, move, and speak. At times it may be insulted, weary, or damaged, scarred even, but it will resiliently beat on.

You, too, are capable. You are capable of communicating when you feel hurt and negotiating for change. You are capable of speaking kindly and apologizing when you make mistakes. You are capable of seeking out support when you are feeling weary and weak. You are capable of physically moving towards things you value, and away from things you don't. You have a mind that can learn from experiences and creatively engage in problem solving for the betterment of yourself and others. You have senses to experience the world and an ability to express that experience to others. You are capable.

Someday we may emphasize more about how you are incapable. You are incapable of completely preventing bad things from happening. You are incapable of avoiding "hurt feelings" or of making mistakes. You are incapable of being certain of the future or having complete control over things you very much would like to control. You are incapable of absolving the responsibility of decision or of living forever. Your dad, too, is incapable of these things. But for today, we will focus on your capacities.

While I absolutely have the urge to put a "Handle with Care" sticker on my daughter every day she leaves the house, I strongly believe this wouldn't be the best thing for her. Although she is not unbreakable, she isn't fragile either, and I want to emphasize both of these ideas to her in tandem - that she is both capable and incapable...just like her father.


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