“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

A phrase I uttered many times in my childhood. However, looking back now, I realise this could not have been further from the truth. Words do hurt. A lot. So much has changed in society since I was eleven but sadly, with the introduction of social media, bullying has only gotten worse. At least I could escape to the sanctuary of my home and family when I got back from school – a luxury today’s children don’t share.

Research shows that one in two young people will, at some point, experience bullying and, as a result, one in three will self-harm and 14% will develop eating disorders. These are scary figures. As a mother and a teacher, I have witnessed the pain caused by cruel remarks and thoughtless put downs pretty much daily. However, I have also found that the word bullying can be thrown around far too easily.

There is no actual legal definition of ‘bullying’, but it can be described as repeated behaviour intended to hurt someone physically or emotionally and can take many forms, such as physical abuse or cyber-bullying via the Internet. Young people are naïve when it comes to appreciating the consequences of things they say and do, and this can have long lasting effects on the recipient.

For this reason, I have found that encouraging empathy is the key to the prevention of bullying. When teaching pre-pubescent Year 6 children, many hours are spent dealing with conflicts. One year, after reaching the end of my tether, I decided to take action. After all, prevention is better than cure.

I asked the children in my class to squeeze all the toothpaste out of a tube of toothpaste onto a plate. This was met with lots of giggling and whooping. Once they were done, I handed toothpicks out and asked the class to put the toothpaste back into the tube. It didn’t take long for them to realise that it was an impossible task. The children were then asked to write a horrid name they had been called on a whiteboard and hold it up in the air. After five minutes of reading every word, the class fell silent. I explained that the toothpaste represents every mean comment they have uttered to someone, and just like you cannot put toothpaste back in the tube, neither can you remove the pain caused by saying hurtful things. This one activity was more powerful than ten thousand words.

Strong people don’t put others down…They lift them up.

Michael P Watson