Inside: Teaching kids that words matter using this brilliant analogy.
“Mama, Levi said something mean to me!” Cried Charlie as he walked up the stairs from the kids’ playroom. “He said a really mean word!”
“But I said sorry!” Shouted Levi, following his brother up the stairs. “And besides, he deserved it, he was annoying!”
“No, I wasn’t!” Charlie cried. They went on arguing about what happened in the playroom.
We’ve had numerous conversations about the power of words, and the kids are well aware of the list of banned words in our house. But once in a while, rules are broken and feelings get hurt.
I remembered an analogy I learned in my school years, and decided to teach it to my boys. “Come on, both of you follow me,” I said, as I walked into my office. They treaded behind me.
how to teach kids that words matter
I took out a crisp, never before touched sheet of printer paper and handed it to Levi. He took it, carefully holding it between his index finger and his thumb.
“Look at the paper”, I said, “Can you describe it?”
“It’s smooth”, he answered.
“There’s nothing on it.”
“Right. Now, crumple it up.”
My son looked up at me as if to question why he should crumple up a perfectly good sheet of paper. “Go ahead,” I said. He crumpled it into a ball.
“Now squeeze it really tight.”
He no longer hesitated and squeezed the crumpled paper as hard as he could.
“Good, now throw it on the ground and stomp on it.”
He did as he was told, stomping on the crumpled paper, making it look less like a ball and more like a pancake.
“Ok, now pick it up,” I said. He picked up the distressed mass of paper and looked up at me. “Now tell it you’re sorry.” My son looked up at me again, questioningly raising his eyebrows. I raised my eyebrows in return.
“Sorry,” He said looking at the crumpled paper.
“How sorry are you?”
“I’m very sorry.”
“Ok, now straighten it out.”
He carefully nudged the paper open and uncrumpled it. He put it on the table and tried his best to smooth the wrinkles out.
“Look at the paper,” I said, “What do you see now?”
“It’s not so smooth anymore. It has wrinkles all over it,” He said.
“Yes, it does. This paper will never be the same, no matter how many times you tell it you’re sorry. Mean words do the same thing. Every time you say something mean to your brother, you leave a wrinkle on your brother’s heart. Mean words leave marks and scars behind, and they can hurt even after you say sorry.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” My little boy said sincerely, turning to his brother. He didn’t want to be the cause of wrinkles on his brother’s heart.
“It’s okay. Let’s go finish building your lego car,” responded Charlie, accepting his brother’s sincere apology. They ran downstairs together and continued to play.
Kids are resilient, it’s true, but mean words they hear sometimes stick around for years. It’s important to teach our children the power of words, and the long-term effect they can have.
How to help kids remember this analogy
After you teach your kids that words matter with this analogy, suggest a code word or sentence they can use to remind each other of the wrinkles. Kids get carried away and forget things. If a child hears a mean word said in her direction, teach her to say something like, “Ouch, that left a wrinkle,” or “Please don’t wrinkle me.” This will trigger the other child’s memory and hopefully will stop the mean words in their tracks.
“Do wrinkles really stay on your heart forever?” Your children may ask. There are steps you can take to make the paper wrinkles smoother, and that takes effort. Same goes for the heart. Encourage your kids to use words and acts of kindness to heal the wrinkles they may have caused. Saying sorry has its place, but adding something positive that will uplift the hurting child will be much more effective in healing the wrinkle.
Show your children what words can do with this analogy, choose a reminder phrase they can use, put the wrinkled paper up on the fridge, and there will be less really mean words to go around.
Names have been changed to protect my kids’ privacy.