I didn’t start many fist fights as a kid. Not many punches thrown or kicks leveled, but I still managed to hurt plenty of people with my mouth. I could be vicious with my words. Which is why it caught my attention not long ago when I heard a teacher telling a young boy to “use your words” to resolve a dispute. Sound advice when compared to bludgeoning his opponent, I suppose. There’s something to be said for not reverting to Cro-Magnon style dispute resolution. But still, such advice is a little bit like giving a kid a knife, a gun, and a box of matches but no safety instructions.
The old adage goes “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. “ Of course this is more of a self pep talk than actual truth. Anyone who has ever related to another human knows truth looks more like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but I’d much prefer that to insults, gossip, and condescension.” Telling someone with little discernment or common sense to “use their words” holds as much risk as it does wisdom.
Of course I risk stating the obvious here, and maybe I already have, but verbal communication is not inherently good. It is necessary, and often it is preferable to the aforementioned caveman methods, but it is just as often the spark that starts the forest fire or the rudder that steers the ship onto the rocks. Words are tools and, like knives or hammers, can build, repair, maim, or murder.
Don’t tell your kids to “use your words;” tell them how. Better yet, show them. Show them the significance of a soft answer or an encouraging word. Explain that a word is like a match: it can start a fire to warm your neighbor or to roast him. Giving children vocabulary and the ultimatum to use it with no coaching will start more disputes than it will settle and hurt more feelings than it will soothe.