How to Put a Stop to Verbal Bullying

US culture today is dominated by a problem that should not be a problem: children and adults alike believe that somebody else can diminish them by saying something hurtful.

The current uproar about forbidding a specific word in the NFL is a fine example of the problem, but you could easily find many more. Most of the emphasis on bullying today is not about the kind of bullying that not only traumatized but actually bloodied kids in past eras; it is about words. Grown people, however, seem just as easily wounded by words, and for that matter, deeds today that would have been regarded as ridiculous social snubs are held up for public scrutiny as examples of bullying.

Words do have power, and it is both healthy and civilized to recognize this power. Despite this fact, however, mere words in the mouths of silly people who want to make themselves look big cannot turn anybody’s world upside down without the cooperation of the intended victim. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” .(‘This Is My Story,’ 1937 quoted at She was absolutely right. If Mary belittles Sally, the words express Mary’s lack of character and say nothing about Sally. If Sally consents to be characterized by those words, it is her own choice. Unfortunately, there is a strong movement in the culture to say that Mary is in the wrong if she says anything that even might offend Sally. 

To say that does not mean that Mary has no responsibility for her words, but it does mean that the culture need not reshape itself due to the possibility that Sally will take offense at something. Mary should not say ugly, hurtful words, but the right way to fix the problem is to teach Mary respect, not to hogtie the language of a nation. 

To teach Mary respect is the job of her parents. In other words, parents have the obligation to teach their children to respect other people, and if they are successful, they won’t need to give their children lists of words not to say. If the children learn respect, they will know in their own consciences how to speak of other people. They will recognize and filter out the despicable words on their own. Parents do need to tell two-year-olds which words not to say, because two-year-olds are not mature enough to filter the words for themselves. However, since two-year-olds famously copy everything their own parents say, parents can solve a lot of problems by living according to the standards they want their children to adopt. Parents who have done that will not need to tell twelve-year-olds which words not to say, and the culture does not need to tell adult football players what words they can use. 

The other half of the equation is that Sally’s parents must teach her to know that God loves her, and God sees great value in her. Sally was created by God, just as Mary was. In his eyes, they are equally loved. Sally does not need to wilt or hide when she hears scornful, mocking words from Mary. In fact, God says that the best thing Sally can do for Mary is to love her, pray for her and forgive her. If Sally learns to how much Christ loves her, it will be a lot less challenging to remind her that Christ said to love and pray for people who speak ugly words about her. 

Social activism does not really believe in the power of parenting, because social activists do not really believe in the power of God. The most vocal social activists in the culture specifically deny the existence of God, and they believe that the government at all levels must stand in for Him and enforce strict rules about the words that are allowed. They fail to recognize that rules which forbid certain words do not change the hearts of people; the same hatred and scorn that created the forbidden words remains unchecked, and that attitude will simply invent new words. Compliant speech does not transform scorn into love. Only Christ does that. To manage speech by legal force is to imprison people. Prisoners always have escape as their highest priority. 

Parents are the ones who have the greatest opportunity to teach and nurture character that, on the one hand, respects all people, and, on the other hand, rejects the power of ugly words by anyone. Parents. It is well known that many important character traits have already been shaped by age six or seven. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that young children constantly observe and model their parents, even if they fight back against parental authority. God has created people to learn from their parents, whether or not they enjoy it. God has built into children the instinct to learn from parents, and parents who feel the need to beg their children to obey or to buy their children’s compliance are destroying that God-given gift built into the personalities of children. 

The most important thing a parent can do for a child is to model and nurture a relationship with Christ. Teaching and modeling respect, self-confidence, love of other people, and forgiveness build character and result in behavior that includes neither speaking abusive language nor meltdown at hearing abusive language. Children must learn by observation and experience that they do not need to consent to be abused by language, and they must learn through their parents that it is God’s love for them and all people that enables them both to reject the language and forgive the speaker, behaviors which completely disintegrate the power of language to harm them. 

We must teach our children not to use words with the intent to hurt, not because the words are on a forbidden list, but rather, because it is what Christ wants us to do. Christ teaches us not to harm others, because the people we might target are God’s beloved children, and not to accept the harm others seek to inflict with words, because we ourselves are also God’s beloved children.  

The real problem with the words and attitudes that are being attacked by advocacy for “politically correct” speech is not the words. The real problem is character. Some will try to say, “But little children are not that strong.” The evidence of generations of children is that they certainly are that strong. They can and they will learn respect for others and self-confidence in the face of abusive language by observing and interacting with parents who love their children so much that they will not let them grow up without learning from Christ himself, their creator and savior. The real solution to prevent people who are tempted to be bullies or to strengthen people who are the targets of bullies is Christ. The best method to assure that children know Christ is that they have parents who know Christ, who model his teachings, and who teach their children to know Christ from the day of their birth.