We all know the old adage, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Not true, in my opinion. Words can indeed be very hurtful and long remembered. I have counseled with adults in many situations who remember word for word things said to them as a mere child. Some very young children can clearly recite something that a parent or other supposedly loving adult said to them when they were younger than school age.
I can remember one vivid image of this truth from my own childhood. My father, Robert Henry Cannon, was killed in World War II when I was only 6 months old, and I never had the privilege of meeting him in person. All I really know about him is what others tell me, and I have held on to the few images of him I have seen with my own eyes. He and my mother were childhood sweethearts from the third grade of school and everyone knew that Bob and Flo would marry and live long, happy lives together. The war interrupted that dream and I was born on their third wedding anniversary when my father was far from home on a distant shore fighting for America. We did not know for almost two years if he ever knew that I had been born because the mailing of letters was not advanced as it is now. As it was, a friend of his came to my grandparent’s home nearly 24 months after his death to tell my mom that Bob did get one letter telling him of my birth near Christmas.
That visit was the first time my mom really believed her Bob was dead. She did not get to attend a funeral, close a casket, see any remains, or be handed any of his personal effects. Just that yellow, worn telegram, stating, “We regret to inform you …” Mother, we later learned, had believed that he, like so many did, had been able to escape and was simply hiding in the jungles on New Georgia Island, and would come out when he heard the awful war was finally over. She had held onto newspaper clippings of such amazing rescues and just knew in her heart that Bob was one of the lucky ones.
When I was nearly six, my mom did meet someone and marry him. His mother, a socialite in East Atlanta, did not like it that her son married “someone with baggage.” I did not know exactly what that meant, but I knew it hurt my mom, made my Mama Cole furious, and wasn’t a good thing. When I was just past 7, my brother was born, and later, a second brother and then a beautiful baby sister.
One day on the playground at school, a very unkind child said to me, “My mother said those kids are not your ‘real’ brothers and sisters.” I instantly took offense to that statement. I loved those kids, helped take care of them, and cared about them very much. Without thinking, I punched the guy in the face and we ended up scuffling on the ground. A teacher broke up the fight with much chiding, saying that she couldn’t believe I had hit another student. I had always behaved myself, studied hard and tended to my own business. When she heard the story, she was angry herself, and she spoke to the young man rather harshly, asking him where he heard this and what he meant by it. He admitted to her that his mother had said it at dinner the night before in their home. I have never forgotten this instance, and I don’t think the other kid has, either. He had a big, black eye and a cut lip.
Parents, we can also learn something here. Be careful what you say in your homes, in your cars, and around your children. Little ears are always listening, and little minds are amazing at what they remember and repeat. Lasting impressions that hurt or heal are being made as we go about our daily tasks.
Words can also be very encouraging and helpful when spoken at the right time from a caring heart. Have you ever been having a really lousy day and receive a note, telephone call, e-mail or perhaps a bouquet of flowers? Amazing how the day will turn and our attitudes will sweeten and things will settle down into a pattern we can live with.
I’m trying really hard to stay away from the “cutesy” jokes, puns and deliberate attempts at using words badly. I want to honor God with what I say, and Heaven knows, with what I write.
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold, in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
Brenda Cannon Henley is an award-winning journalist and writer living on the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast. Having enjoyed more than four decades in ministry, Brenda shares her columns with our readers and works with churches and faith-based programs nationwide. She can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.