Most of us can remember being teased by others when we were children. Sometimes the teasing hurt us. Perhaps someone called us names based upon what we looked like or some characteristic that we had. When that happened, often someone would say to the teaser, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." We knew that was not true--words do hurt people--but we wanted to appear that the teasing did not bother us.
Words are powerful tools, either for good or evil. Words can build up others or tear them down. Words can praise or destroy another person. Words, once said, are difficult to retrieve. Once they are out of our mouths, they cannot be taken back. The effect of words is long lasting. Sometimes they cause us to be shaped into the person that we become.
When I was a school teacher, in my first year of teaching, I taught in a rural school district north of Houston. I taught special needs students, many of whom had behavior issues as well as learning challenges. One boy that I taught was named Barry. He was in the fifth grade but was large for his age and may have even been older than the other students due to his learning difficulties. Barry was full of energy and was always chasing the other students and often an altercation would happen between one or more students and Barry. Usually they were minor incidents and did not require a lot of attention.
One day, when I was on playground duty, an older teacher came toward me with Barry by his side. The older teacher had his arm around Barry's neck and had a scowl on his face. He brought Barry in front of me and held him there. "Mr. Carpenter," he said, "you see this boy." I looked at Barry who was looking down at the ground. "Yes," I replied, "I see Barry." "Well," the older teacher continued, "one day Barry is going to be in the penitentiary. He can't keep his hands to himself and he is always getting in trouble." I looked at Barry, who was still looking down at the ground and immediately I had feeling of empathy toward him. How must it have felt to him to have this older teacher make the prediction about him that he would one day be in prison? That experience has bothered me all through the years because of the actions of that teacher.
Years later, as I read the Houston newspaper, I saw an article about a man named Barry who had burned a building down and was being sent to prison. Yes, it was the same Barry who now had grown up to be a man and who had lived up to the predictions that the older teacher had made about him. I wondered if Barry became the person that people said he would be, if he had lived up to their expectations, because few had faith in him that he could be anything different that what he became.
Psychologists call that a "self-fulfilling prophecy". That means that people often become what we think they will become. What we see in others often shapes who they are because they internalize the perceptions of others and see themselves the way others see them. If teachers constantly tell students that they are slow or low achieving or mean, many times the students will live up to their teachers' expectations and become what others say they should become.
That does not stop with students. It continues with adults also. The words we use about others have power. The words can do good or cause harm. We are the ones to determine what happens when we say the words.
"...no one can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing." (James 3:8-10a)