We all heard the phrase as a kid, “I’m rubber, you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!” Equally as prevalent, spoken to console the not-so-rubbery child, is the phrase, “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
Let’s be honest. This talk is pretty cheap. These clichés are about the same as putting a bandaid on a stab wound. Words hurt, sometimes surprisingly so.
The Bible tells us this in the book of Proverbs. It says, “The tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21).
Words can tear down, but they can also build up.
In the 80s, two research psychologists documented the power of words in a child’s life. Betty Hart and Todd Risley were inquisitive about the achievement gap between low-income children and children of more advantageous backgrounds. To investigate, they studied 42 families divided into three groups—professionals, working class, and low-income. Their data showed, on average, by age four, children in professional families heard 30 million more words than children in low-income families.
Beyond the quantity of words, their data showed a striking difference in the quality of words. Whereas children in professional families heard 500,000 encouragements compared to 80,000 discouragements, children in low-income families heard 80,000 encouragements compared to 200,000 discouragements.
The results of their study were published in the book Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Their findings, which have been dubbed the “30 Million Word Gap,” clearly show the power of words.
Children need words—some of them need 30 million more words than what they’ve heard!
Of course, kids hear plenty of words on phones, tablets, and television. However, the same study showed that those words don’t have the same impact as a living, breathing, person.
Children need “the word to be flesh, and dwell among them!” They need someone to read with them, someone to ask questions of them, someone to lift them up rather than tear them down, someone to remind them they are beautiful.
When serving children in challenging communities, programs always need more . . .more money, more volunteers, more space, more help. One thing though there is no short supply of is words. A careful steward of his or her words may not change the whole world, but he or she can change a child’s world, one word at a time.
Perhaps talk isn’t that cheap after all.