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Sticks and Stones

Words can hurt

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage us to consider the words we use to one another, especially when emotions are running high.

Preparation and materials

  • None required.


Leader: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ So go the words of an old saying. But is it true? I wonder, have you ever been hurt by the words that people have used towards you? If so, what kind of words were they?

(Provide a time of open or group discussion, allowing students the freedom to be honest, but carefully managing the expression of word examples.)

Leader: Many of these words are pejorative – words that express contempt or disapproval. They might be to do with gender (pause to allow examples to sink in), skin colour (pause), race (pause), religion (pause) or sexual orientation (pause). We can all think of many examples of words like these that are hurled as insults, particularly when emotions are running high. They make us feel excluded and like we don’t belong. They hurt deeply. They are the kinds of words that have caused footballers to be suspended, politicians to lose their jobs and work managers to be sacked.

Yet there are other words that can also hurt, words that diminish those at whom they are directed. They might be to do with intelligence, implying that we have little common sense or maturity, that we’re acting like children. They might be to do with our appearance, implying that we’re overweight or too thin, unattractive or have poor fashion sense. These sorts of comments can be brutally harsh; the words hurt! A positive self-image is vital as we attempt to discover our place in the world.

Words can hurt.

Time for reflection

Leader: So, what can we do about these words? Well, we can draw the obvious conclusion to be more careful when addressing one another. That’s easy when we’re feeling calm and rational, less easy when we’re emotional and worked up. Maybe we all need to pause and count to ten before we speak! We need to pause before we respond when provoked, and always be aware of the danger of knee-jerk reactions. However, there is another approach to take in relationships in general.

If some words can hurt, it follows that there are other words that can heal. I hope we’ve all experienced receiving compliments and words of encouragement, praise, affection and inclusion. Sadly, though, this may be a rare experience for some. So, I want to suggest that we all flood our relationships with words that make others feel better, set them free to be themselves, make them proud of how they look and speak, and make them feel part of the group. Maybe today, we can create a flash mob of powerful, positive words and randomly pay some compliments. We will be making others feel good about themselves, about life and about this school and all who are part of it.

A good first step to take is to create a vocabulary list so that we know the healing words to use. (See the extension activity below for more details.)


‘Words’ by Boyzone, available at: (4.05 minutes long)

Extension activities

  1. Make a list of words that you feel you can use to make your friends and family feel good about themselves. These could be words concerning their attitudes, their appearance, their helpful relationship with you, their skills and more besides.

  2. Make it a target for today to use some of these words with ten different people. You can report back tomorrow on any surprising results!
Publication date: March 2021   (Vol.23 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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